SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is close to undertaking its first-ever test launch, dubbed the “Demo-1” mission. On Saturday, the spacecraft will attempt one of three trial flights that will determine if it’s got what it takes to transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. In a display of confidence, SpaceX posted a video showing the capsule mounted on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Thursday.
NASA and Elon Musk’s aerospace company is scheduled to take off on March 2 at 2:48 a.m. Eastern from Launch Complex 39A at the space center. If the test launch is successful, Crew Dragon will become the first spacecraft made by a private American company to visit the ISS. And it could achieve this milestone within a few days’ time.
Falcon 9 is expected to get Crew Dragon to preliminary orbit in about 10 minutes. From there, the rocket’s second-stage will begin its day-long journey to the ISS using its single Merlin Engine to navigate the vacuum of space. It’s expected to dock at the space station on Sunday at roughly 5:55 a.m. Eastern and it’ll stay for just five days.
Crew Dragon will be loaded with 400 pounds of equipment and supplies that the three astronauts currently aboard the ISS will use to complete science experiments and maintain the station. It’ll return to earth on March 8, bringing with it research samples from the ISS, before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.
The uncrewed flight is a monumental moment in American space travel history. It’s the first major step toward reviving NASA’s human spaceflight program, which was shuttered in 2011. Barring any mishaps on Sunday, Crew Dragon is scheduled to for two more test flights in the next few months: an in-flight abort test on June 2019 and a crewed flight on July 2019, though, some have suggested this schedule might be a little too ambitious.
Back-to-back missions within a month gives SpaceX a small window to deal with any unforeseen damage. If Crew Dragon needs to be repaired in between the in-flight abort test and the July crewed test, for example, SpaceX would very likely need to push the final flight back a a bit.
But, if SpaceX is able to pull off all three launches without a hitch, Crew Dragon will be set to begin transporting astronauts to and from the ISS for future NASA Expedition missions. The company could also be joined by Boeing, which is also trying to get its CST-100 capsule approved by NASA to transport astronauts to the ISS.
The company has already completed two Falcon 9 missions this year. One of them launched a historic moon mission into orbit. A successful Crew Dragon test launch would further cement SpaceX’s stellar start to 2019.