NASA will take a step closer to restoring the United States’ space exploration capabilities in less than a week. The organization has given SpaceX the green light to launch a test flight to the International Space Station for the first unmanned test of the Crew Dragon capsule.
The seven-seat capsule will fly to the ISS, dock with the station, and remain attached for a week. It will then detach and reenter the atmosphere. NASA recently performed a full test of the ship’s systems known as a Flight Readiness Review and cleared the mission, known as Demo-1, to proceed.
“We need to make sure that [Crew Dragon] can safely go rendezvous and dock with the space station, and undock safely, and not pose a hazard to the International Space Station,” Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said during a news conference this afternoon.
There have been some concerns about the safety of SpaceX’s software on the Russian side of the equation, but that NASA expects no problems. The associate administrator for NASA Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier told reporters, “I don’t think it’ll be a problem once we go through the details of why it’s safe, and we can explain to them the details of why we’re moving forward.”
SpaceX will send up a dummy crewmember in the seven-person vehicle, though unlike their Tesla rider, this one will hopefully be retrievable. This initial mission is meant to be the first of two upcoming qualifying flights. A second flight, initially scheduled for June but possibly bumped up to April, will test the SuperDraco launch abort system. Demo-2, currently set for July, will be the first crewed mission to the ISS launched by the United States since the Space Shuttle ended service in 2011. That mission is currently expected in July.
SpaceX isn’t the only company putting its own vehicles in space in the near future. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is also expected to fly in April in its first uncrewed test to the ISS. Sending a crew to the ISS wouldn’t represent a full recovery of America’s ability to launch crew vehicles — the Falcon 9 alone isn’t capable of the same breadth of missions as the Space Shuttle, even if its reusability puts it in an entirely different league as far as space vehicles are concerned. But the ability to put people in orbit eight long years after the Space Shuttle retired is an important step back towards manned exploration of the Solar System, whether that means the Moon, Mars, or (one day) further points beyond.
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