Set to become the first commercial spacecraft ever to launch NASA astronauts, SpaceX has revealed that its newest Crew Dragon spaceship is in the midst of its final major factory tests, meaning that it could be just a matter of days before it ships to Florida.
Originally built to support SpaceX’s first operational NASA astronaut launch (PCM-1), an explosion that destroyed capsule C201 forced the company to shuffle its fleet and reassign that spacecraft (capsule C206) to an inaugural crewed test flight known as Demo-2. Thankfully, although C201 did explode during post-recovery static fire testing, the spacecraft had flawlessly completed an uncrewed test flight (Demo-1) the month prior, demonstrating a nominal Falcon 9 launch, space station rendezvous, docking, orbital reentry, and splashdown without a single visible hiccup. In short, Crew Dragon’s Demo-1 launch debut could not have gone better.
Around nine months later, having overcome the biggest hurdles posed by capsule C201’s explosion and unrelated parachute failures, SpaceX successfully launched its second finished Crew Dragon capsule – C205 – on a Falcon 9 rocket. That January 19th In-Flight Abort (IFA) test proved that SpaceX’s first human-rated spacecraft can safely whisk astronauts away from Falcon 9 even if it were to fail at the most stressful point of launch. Now, less than a month later, SpaceX’s third finished Crew Dragon spacecraft is nearly ready to head to Florida to begin preparing for the company’s historic astronaut launch debut.
SpaceX will soon complete the third flightworthy Crew Dragon spacecraft. (NASA/SpaceX)
On February 11th, SpaceX released a video showing a 360-degree view of the Demo-2 Crew Dragon spacecraft (C206) inside its Hawthorne, CA factory’s built-in anechoic chamber – used to perform routine electromagnetic interference (EMI) tests. Meant to verify that Crew Dragon is protected from interference that can be caused by internal and external sources of electromagnetic radiation, EMI testing implies that all of the spacecraft’s systems are installed and operational.
Positive EMI test results should mean that Crew Dragon C206 is (more or less) ready to be transported to SpaceX’s Florida processing facilities.
Comprised of a recoverable, reusable crew capsule and an expendable trunk section, the latter part of the Demo-2 Crew Dragon spacecraft is somewhat conspicuously absent in C206’s EMI test video. This seems to imply that its trunk was either tested independently and shipped to Florida beforehand or still needs to be completed, given that EMI testing is generally more effective when performed with a truly complete vehicle.
Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 trunk did appear to be well on its way to completion more than four months ago, so the former explanation is arguably more plausible.
Ultimately, Crew Dragon C206, its Demo-2 trunk section, and Falcon 9’s booster and upper stage are all expected to be at SpaceX’s Florida processing and launch facilities by the end of the month. According to Ars Technica reporter Eric Berger, NASA and SpaceX are working towards a Crew Dragon astronaut launch debut sometime in late-April to late-May and are maintaining a tentative placeholder date on May 7th, 2020.
Looking at past trends, the Crew Dragon spacecraft assigned to SpaceX’s In-Flight Abort test arrived in Florida around the start of October 2019 and was vertical on Falcon 9 and ready for launch by mid-January 2020 — a delta of about 15 weeks. In the interim, SpaceX had to prepare Crew Dragon capsule C205 for an unusual abort thruster static fire test to verify that the fault that destroyed capsule C201 was solved. That test was completed by mid-November. In other words, all things considered equal, SpaceX could technically be ready to launch its first astronauts as few as 6-9 weeks from now – early to late April – if Crew Dragon C206 ships to Cape Canaveral within a week or two.
At the same time, compared to Crew Dragon’s Demo-1 and IFA test flights, Demo-2 will have many more moving parts and much higher consequences at stake. Still, barring any unforeseen problems, it’s starting to look all but certain that Crew Dragon will perform its inaugural astronaut launch before the first half of 2020 is out.