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SpaceX and NASA are getting ready for a key test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon commercial crew spacecraft on Saturday, and this should be the last major milestone that SpaceX has to pass in terms of demonstration missions before actual crew climb aboard the spaceship for a trip to the International Space Station. Starting at 8 AM ET (5 AM PT), a launch window opens during which SpaceX will hopefully perform what’s called an “in-flight abort” test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 launch vehicle, to demonstrate how its safety systems would protect astronauts on board in the unlikely event of an unexpected incident during a real crew flight.

The plan for this mission is to launch the Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 — in this case, one that’s using a refurbished booster stage previously flown on three prior missions. This will be the Falcon 9’s last flight, however, as the plan includes loss of the rocket this time around instead of a controlled landing. The launch is intentionally being terminated early — just after the rocket achieves its “Max Q” point, or the moment during its flight when it’s under maximum atmospheric stress, at about 84 seconds post-liftoff.

At that point, the rocket will be about 19 kilometres (roughly 62,000 feet) above the surface of the Earth, and about four kilometres (2.5 miles) from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. SpaceX has rigged the Dragon spacecraft’s launch escape system to automatically trigger at this point, which will separate the crew spacecraft from the Falcon and propel it away from the rocket very quickly in order to get it to a safe distance to protect any future passengers. After around five minutes past launch, the Dragon will deploy its parachute system, and then at around 10 minutes after it should splash down in the Atlantic Ocean between 3 and 3.5 km (roughly 2 miles) from shore.

After that, crews will recover the Dragon capsule from the ocean, and return it to Cape Canaveral, where SpaceX will study the spacecraft, including human-sized dummies acting as passengers and sensors within to monitor what happened in the cabin during the test. They’ll use this to ideally show that the abort process works as designed and will protect astronauts on board the spacecraft in case of any emergency that results in an early mission termination.

In addition to the in-flight abort system, SpaceX and NASA are also using this mission to prepare for crewed flight in a number of other ways. Today, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will crew the first piloted mission hopefully later this year, ran through a dry run of what they would experience in a live mission. They donned space suits and walked the transom that connects the Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 to its launchpad support structure, as NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine noted on Twitter.

The test will not involve any attempt to recover the rocket, as mentioned, and SpaceX Crew Mission Management Director Benji Reed said during a press conference today that they do anticipate some kind of “ignition” event with the Falcon 9’s second stage, which could possibly be large enough to be seen from the ground, he said. SpaceX crews will be on standby to recover as much as possible from the rocket wreckage, which will be useful to study, and they’ll also be on hand to minimize any potential environmental impact from the test.

This test was originally scheduled for roughly six months ago, but SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule intended for the mission was destroyed during an unexpected incident while test firing its engines. SpaceX and NASA investigated that explosion, and are now confident that they understand the cause of that incident, and have taken steps to ensure that a similar problem doesn’t happen again. The Crew Dragon being used now for Saturday’s test was originally intended to be the one used for actually flying astronauts, and another capsule is currently in development to serve that purpose.

SpaceX’s launch window for this test opens at 8 AM ET tomorrow, but spans four hours, and Reed said it could actually extend longer tomorrow if need be. NASA Commercial Crew program manager Kathy Leuders explained today that it’s crucial that not only launch conditions, but also recovery conditions, are optimal for the purposes of this test, so both will play a factor in when exactly they launch. Unlike with launches actually designed to reach a specific orbit, timing doesn’t have to be quite as on the nose, so there’s more flexibility in terms of making the decision to proceed or stand down. SpaceX has backup opportunities on both Sunday and Monday should they be required.

We’ll have a live stream and live coverage of the test starting tomorrow morning, so check back early Saturday. The stream will kick off around 15 minutes prior to the scheduled opening of the launch window, so at around 7:45 AM ET.


TechCrunch

Virgin Galactic has begun its ‘Astronaut Readiness Program’ this week, which is being run out of Under Armour Global HQ to start. Under Armour is Virgin Galactic’s partner on its official astronaut uniforms, which its first paying space tourists will don on the company’s initial trips beyond Earth.

The Astronaut Readiness Program is a preparatory course that all of Virgin Galactic’s passengers undertake before they can get their trip aboard the company’s VSS Unity sub-orbital spaceplane. It involves guidance and instruction provided by Virgin Galactic team members, including its Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses and Chief Pilot Dave Mackay. Both Mackay and Moses were on Virgin’s February demonstration flight to space, and so can provide not only guidance based on their considerable expertise, but also share insights from actually having flown aboard the same vessel that will take the company’s paying passengers up. Moses will advise on how to get around on board the spacecraft, too.

Under Armour is also involved in the program, in more ways than just providing and reading the outfits that passengers will wear. They’re providing guidance on how Astronauts should prepare with nutrition and fitness programs to ready the space tourists for their adventure. A Virging Galactic in-house medical team is also on-hand to consult with each passenger. Virgin’s customers don’t need to match the strenuous physical fitness requirements of NASA astronauts, but the company says it’s still focused on ensuring its customers are healthy and hale on their trips.

Being an early customer for Virgin Galactic means not only training through programs like the one run this week in Baltimore, but also helping the new company develop and refine its process for future use.

“We will now be using the feedback from this week in Baltimore to build on that model,” Virgin Galactic said in a press release. “We discussed with our Future Astronauts how the training and the community can be best shaped for those waiting to fly and for those who have flown.”

To date, Virgin Galactic has 600 customers signed up to fly aboard its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, which launches from a customized cargo jet aircraft to reach sub-orbital space and provides customs with a 90-minute flight, for a $ 250,000 ticket. It’s looking to launch its first flights for paying customers in the first half of next year.


TechCrunch

NASA and SpaceX continue their joint preparations for the eventually astronaut crew missions that SpaceX will fly for the agency, with a test of the emergency evacuation procedure for SpaceX’s GO Searcher seaborne ship. The ship is intended to be used to recover spacecraft and astronauts in an actual mission scenario, and the rehearsals this week are a key part of ensuring mission readiness before an actual crewed SpaceX mission.

Photos from the dress rehearsal, which is the first coordinated end-to-end practice run involving the full NASA and SpaceX mission teams working in concert, saw NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken don SpaceX’s fancy new crew suits and mimic a situation where they needed to be removed from the returned Crew Dragon spacecraft and taken to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from the GO Searcher by helicopter.

By all accounts, this was a successful exercise and seems to have left parties on both sides happy with the results. Check out photos released by NASA of the dry run below.

SpaceX and NASA continue to work towards a goal of launching Crew Dragon’s first actual crewed flight this year, though they’ve encountered setbacks that make that potentially impossible, including the explosion of a Crew Dragon test vehicle during a static test fire in April.


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