SpaceX’s Falcon 9 stands on Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center with the Crew Dragon spaceship on top. (SpaceX Photo)
After years of on-the-ground development and testing, the SpaceX spaceship that’s destined to carry NASA astronauts is going on its first uncrewed test mission to the International Space Station tonight — and you can watch the historic liftoff from multiple angles.
When SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule lifts off from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, atop a Falcon 9 rocket, there won’t be any humans aboard. But there will be a crew member of sorts.
SpaceX has placed a spacesuit-wearing, sensor-laden mannequin in one of the Dragon’s seats, to gather data about how rigorous the ride will be for actual astronauts later this year. Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, shied away from calling the test device a dummy.
“We call it a ‘smartie,’ and her name is Ripley,” Koenigsmann told reporters at a pre-launch briefing.
The name pays tribute to the spaceflying character played by Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” series of sci-fi movies. It also brings a bit of anthropomorphic gender balance to SpaceX’s test mannequins: For last year’s maiden launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the test payload included a Tesla Roadster with a dummy nicknamed “Starman” in the driver’s seat.
Ripley’s ride is due to begin at 2:49 a.m. ET Saturday (11:49 p.m. PT Friday). Streaming-video coverage of the countdown and launch will begin on NASA TV at 2 a.m. ET (11 p.m. PT), and via SpaceX’s YouTube channel sometime afterward:
Because the Dragon is being launched to the space station, there’s no room for delay: If liftoff doesn’t occur right on time, due to weather or a technical glitch, the launch will have to be reset for a backup opportunity on the night of March 4-5.
After sending the Dragon on its way to orbit, the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster will attempt to fly itself down to an at-sea landing on a drone ship stationed hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.
This mission is designed to test all the systems in advance of crewed missions later this year. Kathy Lueders, program manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said it’s critical to wring out as much of the risk posed by a brand-new vehicle as possible before people climb on board.
“This is an invaluable exercise for us, to learn in the space environment how these systems will be working, and then making sure that these systems are ready to go for when we’re going to put our crews on them,” she said.
In addition to Ripley, the craft will be carrying 400 pounds of supplies and equipment for the station. The robotically controlled rendezvous is scheduled to take place early Sunday morning.
Over the past few weeks, Russian space officials have voiced concerns about whether there was adequate backup computer capacity on the Dragon for the crucial hookup. To address those concerns, NASA and Roscosmos worked out a plan to have the station’s three crew members ready to take shelter in a docket Soyuz spacecraft in case the rendezvous goes horribly awry.
A spacesuit-wearing, instrument-laden mannequin nicknamed “Ripley” sits inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship. (Elon Musk via Twitter)
Assuming all proceeds according to plan, NASA astronaut Anne McClain and Canada’s David Saint-Jacques will open the hatch, run tests and inspect the Dragon’s interior after docking. Meanwhile, cameras attached to the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm will inspect the exterior.
The Dragon is due to stay docked to the station for five days, and then unhook itself and descend to an Atlantic Ocean splashdown on March 8. “Obviously It’s something that we have to practice in preparation for actual crew flight, to make sure that we are fast on the right spot, that we have all the potential medical attention at the right time,” Koenigsmann said.
NASA awarded multibillion-dollar contracts to SpaceX and Boeing back in 2014 to develop commercial space taxis for transporting astronauts to and from the space station, in order to fill the gap left behind by the space shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011. In the interim, NASA has been paying the Russians as much as $80 million per seat for rides back and forth on Soyuz spacecraft.
Boeing is expected to send its Starliner space capsule on an uncrewed flight to the space station for the first time sometime this spring. The current schedule calls for SpaceX’s first crewed launch of the Crew Dragon to occur in July, and for Boeing’s first crewed Starliner launch to take place no earlier than August.
The crews for those missions have already been chosen. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will ride the Dragon, while the Starliner will carry NASA’s Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke as well as Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson (a former NASA space shuttle commander).
However, there’s a good chance that the stated flight schedule will slip. For example, NASA wants to make sure SpaceX has fully addressed concerns about the Falcon 9’s composite-wrapped helium tanks, which were redesigned after a launch-pad explosion in 2016. There may also need to be some design tweaks made in the Dragon’s thruster system.
Additional “unknown unknowns” may well come to light during the uncrewed test flights, or during launch abort tests that SpaceX and Boeing are due to execute in the months ahead. Because of those uncertainties, NASA has been talking with the Russians about buying additional Soyuz seats just to make sure U.S. astronauts have continued access to the space station if further delays arise.