Crew Dragon Retires Big Risks, More Challenges Lie Ahead

The first Crew Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

“Hope comes in many forms.”
— Dr. Jennifer Melfi, The Sopranos

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

So far, so good.

Crew Dragon automatically docked at the International Space Station (ISS) this morning. Although it lacked astronauts, it is was a milestone in NASA’s Commercial Crew program that has funded SpaceX and Boeing to produce vehicle to replace the space shuttle the agency retired in 2011.

The mission has already retired a great deal of risk, including the launch on Saturday, on orbit operations, and rendezvous and docking with the space station. The docking is a major achievement; the cargo Dragon variant is berthed with the station by an astronaut using the facility’s robotic arm.

Prior to the flight, the Russian space agency Roscosmos had expressed reservations about the software being used to guide Crew Dragon to a docking with ISS. The space agency appeared to reiterate that concern today with a tweet in Russian:

The Twitter translation of this tweet reads:

Roscosmos congratulates @NASA with successful docking of the new ship and emphasizes that the safety of flights should be irreproachable.

The State Corporation welcomes the development of mutual relations in the field of space exploration and expresses its confidence that cooperation will develop

The next big risk for Crew Dragon to retire is reentry and a parachute landing in the Atlantic Ocean on Friday. The vehicle’s shape is different from the cargo version, which will affect reentry. The crew capsule also uses four parachutes instead of three.

But, as the old saying goes, this is why we test. The goal of a flight test is to find and fix all the problems with a flying vehicle before you put it into service. You expect some things to go wrong, but the hope is the failures do not cause excessive delays in the program.

SpaceX plans to use the capsule from this mission for an in-flight abort test currently planned for June. The following month, a second flight test flown by two NASA astronauts is scheduled to put Crew Dragon through its paces.

If all goes well, NASA and SpaceX will work to certify Crew Dragon to carry astronauts to ISS on a commercial basis. That first commercial flight could occur by the end of the year, although it could slip into 2020.

Meanwhile, Boeing plans flight tests of its CST-100 Spaceliner vehicle for as early as next month. The Commercial Crew flight test planning dates are:

  • Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): NET April 2019
  • Boeing Pad Abort Test: NET May 2019
  • SpaceX In-Flight Abort Test: June 2019
  • SpaceX Demo-2 (crewed): July 2019
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): NET August 2019

From a programmatic standpoint, the Crew Dragon flight puts NASA much closer to where the agency was eight years ago before it retired the space shuttle. The space agency has already dealt with how to take cargo to the space station through its Commercial Resupply Services program.

If all goes well in the months ahead, NASA will recover its ability to send astronauts to the station from U.S. soil. The commercial crew vehicles will get the agency off its dependence on Russian Soyuz vehicle to transport crew.

More importantly, the vehicles will expand the crew size from six to seven. That seventh astronaut will be able to devote full time attention on conducting microgravity research. And American taxpayers will get full value out of a station into which they have invested an estimated $100 billion.

But, all that lies ahead now. Both Crew Dragon and Starliner have risks to retire throughout the year. Setbacks and further delays are possible, perhaps even likely.

But, this weekend’s flight has given people hope that the United States will once again be in control of its future in human spaceflight. And that’s no small thing.