This Wednesday, NASA and SpaceX will launch two astronauts on a journey to the International Space Station (ISS) on the first crewed test flight of the new Crew Dragon capsule.
This launch will be a milestone in the history of American space flight, marking the first time U.S. astronauts have launched from U.S. soil since 2011, and it will also be a carefully choreographed dance representing the culmination of years of work from thousands of scientists, engineers, and administrators across the country.
Here’s how the launch will proceed.
Pre-launch: Preparing the astronauts
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have already been in quarantine ahead of the mission, confined to their crew quarters at the Kennedy Space Center. As you can imagine, the quarantine is even more strict than usual due to the coronavirus pandemic, so not only the astronauts but also all the scientists, medics, and other personnel who come into contact with them need to follow strict procedures.
On the day of the launch, Behnken and Hurley will first enjoy the last Earth-bound breakfast they’ll have for a while, before being assisted into their spacesuits, a new design for the mission. After checks and re-checks to ensure everything is safe and in place, they’ll head from the operations building to the launch pad in a Tesla Model X.
Boarding the Crew Dragon
Once they arrive at the famous Launch Pad 39A, Behnken and Hurley will enter the Crew Dragon capsule which is set on the top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket using a special access arm that’s the space equivalent of a jet bridge. They’ll enter around 2 hours before the launch is scheduled to begin, so they have plenty of time to get settled and to perform pre-flight checks.
This particular Falcon 9 rocket will be decorated with NASA’s iconic worm logo, which has been associated with the agency since the 1970s but was retired in the early 1990s. But now it’s back to mark this historic event for the agency and for SpaceX.
The launch itself is scheduled for 1:33 p.m. PT on Wednesday May 27, when the Falcon 9 rocket will fire its thrusters and accelerate up into the sky at 17,000 mph. Powered by liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene propellant, the Falcon 9’s first stage has nine Merlin engines that create thrust greater than that of five 747 airplanes combined.
This is as long as the weather cooperates, although if high winds or excessive clouds have the potential to cause a problem, the launch could be pushed back to its backup date of May 30.
Should anything go wrong during the launch process, the emergency escape system will kick in. Engines on the Crew Dragon capsule will fire to propel Behnken and Hurley half a mile from the Falcon rocket in under 8 seconds, whisking them away to safety before deploying parachutes to let the capsule slowly fall to Earth.
After just a couple of minutes of flight time, the rocket will have made it through the Earth’s atmosphere and fought against the forces of gravity, enabling it to disconnect its first stage booster. This booster will separate from the rest of the rocket and fall back to Earth, where SpaceX will hopefully catch it on one of their drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean. The reusability of rocket components is part of what makes SpaceX’s launches potentially much cheaper and more efficient than the alternatives.
After a few more minutes of propulsion from the Falcon 9 second stage, this too will separate away from the Crew Dragon capsule and fall away. SpaceX hasn’t found a way to make these second stages reusable yet, but it’s working on fully reusable systems for the next generation of rockets.
Crew Dragon alone in space
Once both stages of the rocket have separated from the Crew Dragon, Behnken and Hurley will be alone in their 10-cubic meter capsule. The capsule should automatically guide them toward the International Space Station, but they’re on hand to take over controls manually if it should be necessary at any point.
The craft is equipped with 16 Draco thrusters which allow it to maneuver and adjust its orbit, as well as creating thrust to move the capsule toward its destination of the ISS.
The Crew Dragon will need to gradually and carefully adjust its orbit into the correct altitude to come up alongside the ISS. The automated docking process should guide the capsule into place safely.
Docking with the ISS
Once in position, the capsule can approach closer to the ISS to dock with its Harmony module. The capsule approaches the station — very, very slowly — before connecting “nose first” to the pressurized port on the module. Once everything is secured and confirmed to be in place, the astronauts can open the hatch, and Behnken and Hurley can step through into the ISS to meet their new crewmates, members of ISS Expedition 63.
The flight time from launch to docking is expected to take approximately 19 hours, with the docking scheduled for 8:29 a.m. PT on Thursday May 28, with the hatch opening scheduled for 10:55 a.m. PT.
At 11:25 a.m., the two astronauts will join the currently three ISS crewmembers for a welcome ceremony, before beginning their stay on the station.
Exactly how long Behnken and Hurley will stay has not yet been decided, as it depends upon the progress of SpaceX’s next commercial crew launch. The Crew Dragon is capable of staying in orbit for up to 110 days, though the next version of the capsule after this test will be able to stay for up to 210 days.
The astronauts are expected to stay on the ISS for between one to three months, during which time they’ll perform tests and checks on the capsule, as well as helping the ISS crew with their scientific research experiments and other duties.
Return to solid ground
Once tests to the Crew Dragon have been completed and SpaceX and NASA give the go-ahead, Behnken and Hurley will get back into the capsule to pilot its return to Earth. The capsule will autonomously undock from the station, move carefully away, and head back into the Earth’s atmosphere.
The spacecraft will jettison some parts which are no longer required such as the solar arrays, before hitting the atmosphere at tremendous speed and being slowed by the friction from particles of air. This will create an enormous amount of heat that the capsule’s heat shield will protect against before a parachute is deployed to slow the craft to a more manageable speed.
The Crew Dragon should splash down into the ocean just off Florida’s Atlantic Coast with Behnken and Hurley safely on board, who will then be collected by the SpaceX Go Navigator recovery vessel and returned to Cape Canaveral.
Watch this historic event live
We’ll be here to cover the whole launch event here at Digital Trends, but you can also watch along at home to see this historic event happening live. NASA will be livestreaming the launch and capture of the Crew Dragon via its channel NASA TV.
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- NASA’s space shuttle to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon: Crewed spaceflight’s history
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- SpaceX says it’s all set for Wednesday’s historic mission
- Watch astronaut Bob Behnken’s tour of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule