If there was ever a space dream team, it’s NASA and SpaceX. The space agency and Elon Musk’s brainchild (one of NASA’s Commercial Crew partners along with Boeing) are now getting ready to send off the SpaceX Crew Dragon in an unprecedented mission to the ISS called Demo-2, and until they send astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley out of the atmosphere next April, both entities are going to be in hardcore testing mode.
“To make this decision, our teams conducted an extensive review of the SpaceX ground operations, launch vehicle design, escape systems and operational history,” said NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Lueders. “Safety for our personnel was the driver for this analysis, and the team’s assessment was that this plan presents the least risk.”
Whether the astronauts will board the Crew Dragon before or after SpaceX fuels the Falcon 9 rocket that will be blasting them off has been a major decision for the brains at both the agency and company until NASA recently decided to fuel the rocket after Behnken and Hurley have boarded. Just to give you an idea of the migraines that probably go into this, even this agreement will not be finalized until it gets certified by NASA. That hasn’t happened yet. It’s kind of a big deal to make sure a rocket doesn’t explode before it even leaves Earth.
The double and triple-checking doesn’t stop there. The Falcon 9 Block 5 will have to undergo multiple verifications and demonstrations that verify the configuration of the flight crew, as well as how long it takes to actually board them, to land that certification. NASA still won’t be done after that. If there is even the slightest risk remaining, the rocket will be put through another series of tests — or however many it takes to make sure it will stay in one piece.
Say the rocket gets certified on the first go. Launch day will see the Falcon 9’s COPVs (composite overwrap pressure vehicles) loaded with helium and stabilized for the astronauts. No one will be leaving the planet just yet. Behnken and Hurley will have to wait about two hours after boarding for the launch escape systems to be activated and the rocket to be fueled about half an hour before liftoff. Just in case something glitches, all prep can be automatically stopped and allow the astronauts to evacuate until literally the last moment pre-launch.
This is the usual SpaceX procedure for commercial resupply missions, so we can expect astronomical things if it’s NASA-approved.