After a shaky year for the Crew Dragon, SpaceX's human-carrying capsule finally appears to be firing on all cylinders. The capsule is designed to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, which could end the agency's current dependence on Russia's Roscosmos facilities. For SpaceX, which has future plans to build a city on Mars and beyond, the capsule could be the first time the company sends a human into space.
For the space industry as a whole, the Crew Dragon's success could commercialize low-Earth orbit and enable more firms to invest. This could open up space further to bold new ideas.
On January 19, SpaceX successfully completed an in-flight abort test. This demonstrated that, in case of a major failure during launch, the capsule could escape from the booster and send its passengers to safety. In the post-event press conference, a beaming Elon Musk assessed his company's performance.
"I'm super fired-up," Musk said. "This is great!"
"Another amazing milestone is complete," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said. His warm tone was a marked shift from September 2019, when he declared the Commercial Crew program was "years behind schedule."
The capsule forms part of NASA's Commercial Crew program, which also includes Boeing's CST-100 capsule. The latter capsule encountered an issue during what was expected to be its final test launch on December 2019, when the built-in timer relayed the wrong timings for the mission to the computer. Both SpaceX and Boeing will help end NASA's dependence on Roscosmos, from whom it currently rents seats on Soyuz rockets at around $80 million each. It will also be the first time since 2011, when the shuttle program ended, that a crewed launch vehicle will take off from the United States.
But it could also mean a future where space is more accessible than ever. It could open up low-Earth orbit to space tourism, industrliazed biomedicine, or materials research to a greater extent than ever before.
"We're on the cusp of commercializing low-earth orbit," Bridenstine said. "I want to see large amounts of capital flowing."
SpaceX Crew Dragon: January to March
The first steps will be assessing the test results and deciding on a firmer schedule for the coming months. In the immediate aftermath, the resuts were promising: Musk noted the peak velocity of the capsule during the test was Mach 2.2, more than double the speed of sound. It also achieved an altitude of 131,000 feet, around triple that of a standard airliner. The Falcon 9 booster didn't survive the launch, but thanks to the Crew Dragon's powerful SuperDraco thrusters, the capsule came away seemingly unscathed.
Part of the upcoming assessment will include looking at the Mark 3 parachutes, supplied by Airborne, which Musk previously praised as offering the “highest safety factor for astronauts.” The team hopes to get a new set of flight chutes and complete two more system-level tests ahead of the first crewed flight.
"The hardware necessary for the first crewed launch we believe will be ready by the end of February," Musk stated during the press conference. This could be pushed back to "no later than March."
From there, checks will be required on the final hardware to ensure it's ready for launch, or "until every stone has been turned over three or four times."
SpaceX has encountered difficultires with its Crew Dragon in the past. A viral video in April 2019 showed a severe anomaly with one of the thrusters, later explained as titanium unexpectedly igniting around 100 milliseconds before firing. A parachute system failure in May 2019 was described by agency official Bill Gerstenmaier as a "gift" thanks to its valuable data.
The Crew Dragon forms a whole other level of complexity versus its predecessors, which only had to focus on sending up cargo. SpaceX estimated that the amount of personnel required to run the final safety checks on the Crew Dragon could run to somewhere between two and three times more than the cargo Dragon.
SpaceX Crew Dragon: April to June
Assuming all tests move according to plan, the team would aim to move forward with the first manned test flight.
NASA announced back in August 2018 that it had chosen Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley for that first mission. Behnken is a former Air Force colonel from St. Ann, Missouri who has served as an astronaut since 2000. Hurley is a former Marine Corps. colonel from New York, also serving as an astronaut since 2000.
The pair have been preparing for this moment for some time. In June 2018 the pair were filmed trying out the Crew Dragon's controls. In August 2019, they visited SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, to try on the suits and simulate the "Demo-2" mission.
But even at this late stage, Bridenstine suggested that the mission could change shape.
"Do we want that first crew to be a short duration or do we want it to be a longer duration?" Bridenstine said.
The team was planning to send the pair to the space station for around two weeks, but Bridenstine suggested that there is still scope to change plans and send up the pair for a longer period. A longer mission, floated previously in October 2019, would allow NASA to rotate the crew on board the International Space Station and reduce some of the pressure on its mission schedule.
If the test flight is successful, SpaceX will have successfully moved beyond sending just cargo into space and will have officially entered the business of human spaceflight.
"Anyone who has an adventurous bone in their body is going to be very excited about this," Musk said.