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SpaceX to launch its capsule designed to take humans into space

In the early hours of Saturday morning, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to travel to the skies over Florida, propelling a spacecraft bound for the International Space Station. The rocket’s payload is SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon capsule, the company’s first vehicle designed to transport people into space.

Although the capsule is for passengers, no one will be on board on this trip. For what reason? Because this flight is, deep down, a test. The mission, called Demonstration-1 or DM-1, is meant to show NASA that Crew Dragon is space-worthy and safe for future human crew members.

NASA’s logical concern

NASA is especially concerned about this last aspect, because the first people to fly in Crew Dragon will be NASA astronauts. Crew Dragon is a critical part of the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program, which revolves around the use of privately made spacecraft to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Both SpaceX and the aerospace company Boeing have been making capsules for this purpose, and after five years of development, SpaceX could be the first to put its vehicle in space. If all goes well, the next time I go to orbit, Crew Dragon could already go with people inside.

What to expect from this test and what comes after the launch ends?

When NASA’s Discovery Space Shuttle stopped flying in 2011 after 26 years of service, the space agency lost its primary method of sending its astronauts to the International Space Station. Since then, NASA has been purchasing seats aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for astronauts from the US and their international partners to access the ISS. It is an expensive deal, as NASA must pay $ 81 million per astronaut. It is also NASA’s only option at this time. If the Soyuz were to stop operating for an extended period of time, NASA would have no way of getting its people into space. It is a problem that had to be solved.

SpaceX and Boeing

That’s why, for the past decade, NASA has been working on how to get its astronauts back into American-made vehicles. Through the commercial crew program, NASA awarded contracts to both SpaceX and Boeing, valued at $ 2.6 billion and $ 4.2 billion respectively, to partially finance the development of new vehicles that could transport astronauts to and from the ISS. Since then, Boeing has been working on its vehicle, the CST-100 Starliner, while SpaceX has been developing the Crew Dragon.

Both vehicles are scheduled to fly this year, with Boeing targeting its first test flight in April. However, it has been a long and bumpy road to get to this point. When NASA first awarded SpaceX and Boeing their contracts in 2014, the goal was to fly the first astronauts in 2017; But numerous delays and technical obstacles have delayed that goal. NASA safety advisers raised concerns about certain aspects of the vehicle designs, while other experts questioned SpaceX’s plans to power its rockets with people on board.

Now what comes next?

Once Crew Dragon successfully passes the test, both NASA and SpaceX will spend time evaluating the flight. And in about a month, it will be time for SpaceX’s next big launch, one that will test the company’s emergency escape system.

Known as “flight aborts,” and built into the Crew Dragon capsule structure are eight thrusters, called Super Dracos, which can ignite during launch and drive the vehicle away from a malfunctioning rocket.

Once NASA is satisfied with the spacecraft’s safety procedures, the SpaceX capsule will go into orbit with astronauts on board, possibly starting in July. SpaceX’s first test team includes two people, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley , who are NASA veterans. During that trip, the two will dock with the ISS and spend a couple of weeks in orbit doing tests on the Crew Dragon vehicle. They will then depart and launch into the Atlantic, where they will encounter one of the SpaceX ships designed to retrieve the capsule.

If that mission goes well, then NASA will make the final decision on whether to certify SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for regular manned missions to the International Space Station. There is still a lot to do, but this weekend’s flight will be a big step.

Image credit: SpaceX

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