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SpaceX plans crew capsule launch

March 2, 2019
The SpaceX Falcon 9 Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard is seen as it is rolled to the launch pad at Launch Complex 39A ahead of Demo-1 mission(Photo: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

SpaceX plans to take the next step toward returning human spaceflight to U.S. soil. Liftoff of the first test mission of the company’s Dragon capsule, capable of supporting a crew, is scheduled for Saturday morning, March 2 at 2:49 a.m. EST.

Since 2011, when the Space Shuttle was retired, NASA has ferried supplies and science equipment to the International Space Station with SpaceX Dragon and Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft launched from Florida and Virginia via the Commercial Resupply Program.

The Demonstration-1 (DM-1) mission is an important one because it is the first (test) launch of the Commercial Crew Program, a critical step that must be successfully completed before the first astronauts can walk across the gantry and board a Dragon capsule. DM-1 will have no crew aboard but will have an anthropomorphic test dummy (ATD) onboard. This dummy is much more of a smarty though. It is filled with sensors to measure the gravitational loads that will be placed on the crew as well as the environment around them. This isn’t the first ATD launched by SpaceX. In 2015, an unnamed dummy was aboard the Dragon’s pad abort test. Last year, SpaceX launched “Starman”, a space-suited, non-instrumented, mannequin named for the David Bowie song of the same name, in the first test of the Falcon Heavy. Starman is currently more than 227 million miles from Earth, beyond the orbit of Mars, according to the tracking website set up by Ben Pearson. SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk shared the name of the Dragon-rider via twitter on Friday: Ripley, named for Sigourney Weaver’s character from the Alien film franchise. In 2017, Blue Origin tested its crew capsule in west Texas with a dummy aboard named “Mannequin Skywalker”.

Saturday morning’s historic test flight will launch from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The first un-crewed test of the Saturn V rocket launched from this site in 1967. The last Saturn V also lifted off from there in 1973. LC39A would go on to launch STS-1, the first orbital mission of the Space Shuttle program.

I last stood on Launch Complex 39 in August and was stuck by how clean the pad is. Only minimal structures remain on the pad itself after the Apollo and Shuttle programs to support a variety of SpaceX and other vehicles. This, along with the reusability of launch vehicles like Falcon, is key to bringing down the cost of getting to space.

The 45th Weather Squadron’s launch weather forecast has improved to 80 percent go, with a high pressure system expected to move into the area around Cape Canaveral Friday night. Forecasters will be watching for the usual concerns about cumulus clouds possibly forming due to lingering moisture in the air following expected showers Friday afternoon. A backup launch window is available on Tuesday, but could be complicated by a cold front that is expected to arrive on Sunday.

Astronauts will be watching this test very closely, especially Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken who are scheduled to fly DM-2 this summer. North Carolina School of Science and Math and North Carolina State University alumna Christina Hammock Koch’s first flight is scheduled for March 14 onboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.

You can watch live on NASA TV with coverage beginning at 2 a.m. EST. SpaceX plans to live stream video from within the capsule during the launch.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.