In case you missed it, SpaceX recently completed its 16th parachute system test for the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, which will carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
SpaceX conducted the test at Naval Air Facility El Centro in Southern California, deploying parachutes to slow the spacecraft for a safe landing in the desert. Crew Dragon is designed for water landings in a nominal scenario, but the test demonstrated the system’s ability to land the spacecraft safely in the unlikely event of a low altitude abort.
Expedition 56 Commander Drew Feustel and Flight Engineer Ricky Arnold of NASA completed the sixth spacewalk at the International Space Station this year at 2:55 p.m. EDT, lasting 6 hours, 49 minutes. The two astronauts installed new high-definition cameras that will provide enhanced views during the final phase of approach and docking of the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner commercial crew spacecraft that will soon begin launching from American soil.
They also swapped a camera assembly on the starboard truss of the station, closed an aperture door on an external environmental imaging experiment outside the Japanese Kibo module, and completed two additional tasks to relocate a grapple bar to aid future spacewalkers and secured some gear associated with a spare cooling unit housed on the station’s truss.
Tune into NASA TV now to watch NASA astronauts Ricky Arnold and Drew Feustel install new high-definition cameras on the International Space Station. The cameras will give NASA enhanced views of the next generation of commercial American spacecraft as they approach and dock to the space station during upcoming flight tests. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will begin launching from U.S. soil later this year, and will each carry out an uncrewed flight test before putting astronauts on board. To enable the enhanced views, the two spacewalkers are installing brackets and the cameras near the international docking adapter mated to the front end of the station’s Harmony module. They also routed the ethernet and power cables to connect the cameras to the station. The booms holding the cameras also expand the wireless network at the orbiting laboratory.
Commercial Crew Program astronauts (left to right) Suni Williams, Eric Boe, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley visited Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) March 27. The astronauts toured the pad for an up-close look at preparations in work for the SpaceX Crew Dragon flight tests. The tower modifications, including the recent removal of the rotating service structure, are proof of progress in outfitting the pad for crew once again. Future integration of the crew access arm will allow for safe crew entry and exit from the spacecraft for launch and in the unlikely event of a pad abort scenario.
During their visit to KSC, the astronauts also stopped outside SpaceX’s processing hangar, adjacent to the launch pad and talked directly with SpaceX employees about their excitement as the program builds momentum. SpaceX and Boeing are working toward returning human space flight launches to the U.S. with flight tests targeted later this year.
As NASA, Boeing and SpaceX prepare for commercial human spaceflight launches, they are training for a variety of contingencies, including emergency water landings. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Landing and Recovery Team is leading a multi-agency operation to practice astronaut rescue missions.
Rescue and recovery involves meticulous planning and close coordination between NASA, the Department of Defense (DOD), and company recovery teams for Starliner and Crew Dragon. These are the spacecraft of Boeing and SpaceX that will fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station from U.S. soil. In the event of a variety of contingency landings, an elite team of pararescue specialists is prepared to rescue the crew anywhere in the world.
Kathleen O’Brady’s five-year-old son can name all of the planets in our solar system and even some nearby stars. Perhaps the brightest star he knows though is his mom. She is helping shape policy in the new era of commercial human spaceflight.
O’Brady plays a key role in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), which has partnered with Boeing and SpaceX to develop spacecraft to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, and return them safely home. NASA is in the process of certifying two new crew transportation systems—Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon—at the same time. As a certification systems engineer in the program’s Systems Engineering and Integration Office at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, O’Brady was responsible for defining an integrated plan for certification which is being executed by both providers.
“I honestly loved it,” O’Brady said. “It’s like putting a puzzle together. Half the problem is trying to make sure you understand what all the pieces are, and then you start slowly integrating those pieces.”
Boeing and SpaceX are targeting test flights with crew on board for late this year. “We all have to do the job right,” O’Brady said. “We have a duty to return our astronauts to flight. We’re going to use these private companies and they’re going to do a fantastic job.”
Crew safety is paramount in the return of human spaceflight launches from Florida’s Space Coast, and the latest round of parachute testing is providing valuable data to help industry partners Boeing and SpaceX meet NASA’s requirements for certification.
On March 4, SpaceX performed its 14th overall parachute test supporting Crew Dragon development. During this test, a C-130 aircraft transported the parachute test vehicle, designed to achieve the maximum speeds that Crew Dragon could experience on reentry, over the Mojave Desert in Southern California and dropped the spacecraft from an altitude of 25,000 feet. In February, the first in a series of reliability tests of the Boeing flight drogue and main parachute system was conducted by releasing a long, dart-shaped test vehicle from a C-17 aircraft over Yuma, Arizona. Both tests resulted in successful touchdowns of the parachute systems.
SpaceX will conduct its next parachute system test in the coming weeks in the California desert, and Boeing is scheduled for its third of five planned qualification tests of its parachute system in May. Both providers’ parachute system qualification testing is scheduled to be completed by fall 2018. The partners are targeting the return of human spaceflight from Florida’s Space Coast this year, and are currently scheduled to begin flight tests late this summer.