Back in 2009, NASA began the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), designed to promote private sector development of human spaceflight. The eventual goal is to jumpstart a spaceflight industry capable of taking tourists and government astronauts into space. The program’s focus is on crew transportation system designs, an important first step in the development of a commercial industry which is predicted to deliver cheap, reliable, and more efficient transportation of space-going folks into Low-Earth Orbit. In 2012, NASA received proposals from companies committed to working on fully developed and integrated crew transportation systems. SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corporation were among those that received funding after a NASA evaluation, and are now expected to meet 15 milestones on the way to realizing their privatized human spaceflight plans. SpaceX just reached, and passed, the eighth milestone—a review of its in-flight abort procedures.
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft made its first manned test flight in December 2010, and a few years later became the first commercial vessel to dock with the ISS. Dragon is partially reusable, and will be sent into space by the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. The recent review focused on the craft’s SuperDraco engines, the software that controls the abort procedure, and the communication between the Dragon and the Falcon 9.
The recently released plans detail the response of the Dragon craft to an abort command while ascending with a full crew on board. NASA and FAA officials attended the review of SpaceX’s abort plan last month and have concluded their review, indicating that SpaceX has passed with flying colors. The actual in-flight test will occur this summer, launching from Cape Canaveral’s Air Force Station.
Approximately 73 seconds after launch, an abort command will be sent to Dragon. The timing is important—at 73 seconds, Dragon will experience dynamic pressure from the atmosphere, as well as flying at an incredible speed. These two factors together mean that the command will be sent at the time when the Dragon is experiencing the greatest amount of stress on its systems. 270 sensors on Dragon will give indications of every system response the craft experiences during the test. A dummy crew will be riding inside the craft.
At the end, the craft will splash into the Atlantic Ocean near the Florida cost, where a ship will be waiting to simulate a rescue and to take Dragon back to the station. SpaceX hopes for a successful test flight, which would put it in position to successfully complete the remaining milestones sometime during the summer of 2014.
Step by step, SpaceX, and the other private corporations, are assuaging the doubts of the skeptics. These companies will at some point in the fairly near future launch manned missions. We have a lot goals for manned exploration of the cosmos, and I think it’s fair to say that SpaceX is among those corporations that will increase the odds of making that happen.