After launching from historic pad 39A in Florida early last Saturday morning, SpaceX’s first of two demonstration missions has now come to a close.
Crew Dragon was the first commercially-built vehicle to ever autonomously dock with the International Space Station, where it stayed for just five short days prior to returning home to complete the demonstration mission. Now, staff at SpaceX and NASA will analyze the mountain of data recorded during the mission to ensure that Crew Dragon is ready for the real thing: to put humans back in space from United States soil.
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This is significant because since 2011, when the Space Shuttle program ended, NASA has been forced to rely on Russia’s Soyuz capsule to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. This major step gets us that much closer to ending our reliance on foreign powers for transportation to low Earth orbit.
Once SpaceX and NASA have gone over all the data, and meticulously inspect the Crew Dragon capsule, the same capsule will be integrated with another Falcon 9 booster for an in-flight abort test. This test is reportedly occurring in approximately two months, and will initially appear to be just another normal launch. However, once the vehicle has reached maximum dynamic pressure (Max Q), when the maximum amount of atmospheric pressure is being exerted on the vehicle during flight, Crew Dragon will separate from the booster, fire its eight Super Draco engines for 5 seconds, and if all goes well, land safely in the Atlantic Ocean.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon DM-1 launch (Credit: me)
What will happen to the booster is, well, not clear. This is the hardest part of the flight, where the rocket will be traveling fast through thick parts of Earth’s atmosphere. The top of the booster – a part that normally would never be exposed to aerodynamic forces like this – will be exposed. It’s possible the rocket could keep going. But the rocket may also explode (this may or may not secretly be what I want to see happen).
If you want to read more about the Demo-1 mission, be sure to check out my exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Demo-1 mission! It’s a long read, but it contains information and analysis, as well as lots of pictures!