America’s newest crew capsule rockets toward space station

Author: 
AP
ID: 
1551513127654285800
Sat, 2019-03-02 07:49

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: America’s newest capsule for
astronauts rocketed Saturday toward the International Space Station
on a high-stakes test flight by SpaceX.

The only passenger was a life-size test dummy, named Ripley
after the lead character in the “Alien” movies. SpaceX needs to
nail the debut of its crew Dragon capsule before putting people on
board later this year.

This latest, flashiest Dragon is on a fast track to reach the
space station Sunday morning, just 27 hours after liftoff.

It will spend five days docked to the orbiting outpost, before
making a retro-style splashdown in the Atlantic next Friday — all
vital training for the next space demo, possibly this summer, when
two astronauts strap in.

“This is critically important … We’re on the precipice of
launching American astronauts on American rockets from American
soil again for the first time since the retirement of the space
shuttles in 2011,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. He
got a special tour of the pad on the eve of launch, by SpaceX
founder and chief executive Elon Musk.

An estimated 5,000 NASA and contractor employees, tourists and
journalists gathered in the wee hours at Kennedy Space Center with
the SpaceX launch team, as the Falcon 9 rocket blasted off before
dawn from the same spot where Apollo moon rockets and space
shuttles once soared. Across the country at SpaceX Mission Control
in Hawthorne, California, company employees went wild, cheering
every step of the way until the capsule successfully reached
orbit.

Looking on from Kennedy’s Launch Control were the two NASA
astronauts who will strap in as early as July for the second space
demo, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. It’s been eight years since
Hurley and three other astronauts flew the last space shuttle
mission, and human launches from Florida ceased.

NASA turned to private companies, SpaceX and Boeing, and has
provided them $8 billion to build and operate crew capsules to
ferry astronauts to and from the space station. Now Russian rockets
are the only way to get astronauts to the 250-mile-high outpost.
Soyuz tickets have skyrocketed over the years; NASA currently pays
$82 million per seat.

Boeing aims to conduct the first test flight of its Starliner
capsule in April, with astronauts on board possibly in August.

Bridenstine said he’s confident that astronauts will soar on a
Dragon or Starliner — or both — by year’s end. But he
stressed there’s no rush.

“We are not in a space race,” he said. “That race is over.
We went to the moon and we won. It’s done. Now we’re in a
position where we can take our time and make sure we get it
right.”

SpaceX already has made 16 trips to the space station using
cargo Dragons. The white crew Dragon is slightly bigger — 8
meters tip to tip — and considerably fancier and safer.

It features four seats, three windows, touch-screen computer
displays and life-support equipment, as well as eight abort engines
to pull the capsule to safety in the event of a launch emergency.
Solar cells are mounted on the spacecraft for electrical power, as
opposed to the protruding solar wings on cargo Dragons.

“It’s an incredibly sleek looking vehicle from the inside
and it’s very easy to operate,” Hurley told reporters just
hours before liftoff. He marvels at how the Dragon has just 30
buttons and touch screens, compared with the space shuttle
cockpit’s 2,000 switches and circuit breakers.

For the test, the Ripley dummy was strapped into the far left
seat, wearing the company’s snappy white spacesuit. The other
seats were empty, save for a small plush toy resembling Earth that
was free to float upon reaching zero-gravity. “Super high tech
zero-g indicator added just before launch!” Musk tweeted. True to
his word, the toy rose weightlessly above the seat once the capsule
was in orbit.

As many as seven astronauts could squeeze in, although four will
be the norm once flights get going, allowing for a little cargo
room. About 200 kilograms of supplies are going up on this
flight.

The capsule is designed to dock and undock automatically with
the space station. Cargo Dragon must be maneuvered with the
station’s robot arm.

Like Ripley, the capsule is rigged with sensors. Engineers will
be carefully watching sound, vibration and other stresses on the
spacecraft, while monitoring the life-support, communication and
propulsion systems. Some of the equipment needs more work —
possibly even redesign — before serving human passengers.

“We’re going to learn a ton from this mission,” said
NASA’s commercial crew program manager, Kathy Lueders.

Flight operations team members — some of them new to this —
also need the six-day trial run, according to Kennedy Space
Center’s director, Robert Cabana.

The objective is to make the next demo flight, with Hurley and
Behnken, as safe as possible. The more immediate goal is to avoid
harming the space station and its three occupants: an American,
Canadian and Russian.

Despite SpaceX’s success at recovering and reusing its
rockets, NASA is insisting on brand new boosters from SpaceX for
the crew capsule flights. The first-stage booster used Saturday
landed on a floating platform in the Atlantic, following liftoff.
SpaceX plans to recycle the newly flying capsule for a
high-altitude abort test this spring, along with a booster launched
and retrieved a week ago.

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America’s newest crew capsule rockets toward space station