NASA leaning towards long-duration flight for 1st Dragon mission


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Capitalism in space: According to one former astronaut as well as a review of photos of the training being given to the astronauts who will fly on SpaceX’s first manned Dragon flight, this Space News article thinks that NASA will make that first flight a long-duration mission.

This Dragon demo mission is officially still planned as a short mission, no more than two weeks. To extend it requires additional training, which the photos appear to show, and would thus delay its launch by as yet an unspecified time period.

The article also cites a third reason NASA is now favoring the long-duration option: The issues with Boeing’s manned Starliner capsule:

Another factor in any decision to extend Demo-2 is the status of the other commercial crew vehicle, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner. That vehicle flew an uncrewed test flight in December, but software problems during the flight, including one which shortened the mission and prevented a docking with the ISS, have raised questions about whether a second uncrewed test flight will be needed. An investigation into those problems is expected by the end of this month.

Even if NASA decides a second uncrewed test flight of Starliner is not needed, a review of all of the spacecraft’s one million lines of code, and other reviews, is likely to delay a crewed test flight of the spacecraft. NASA and Boeing had previously agreed to make that test flight a long-duration mission, with NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson performing space station training in addition to that for the Starliner itself.

The delay in Boeing’s long duration mission leaves a gap in the schedule for maintaining crews on ISS. Flying Dragon long-duration would help solve that.

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11 comments

  • Dick Eagleson

    NASA, as an institution, is typically reticent about acknowledging anything it regards as bad news. The perennially tardy acknowledgements of SLS’s serial schedule delays are the commonest example of this, but the lack of prompt acknowledgement that DM-2 will be an extended-duration mission is just the latest such instance.

    Given that NASA’s last paid-for Soyuz seat is scheduled to be used in April and that it was obvious from the time of the problematical OFT-1 mission of Starliner that that craft would see another significant delay in entering service, the decision to extend DM-2 has been an obvious no-brainer. But NASA, as usual, is dragging out the formal announcement of that fact until the last possible moment.

    It is now equally obvious that SpaceX will also fly the first officially operational ISS crew mission, USCV-1, later this year. I’m expecting NASA to unreasonably delay any official acknowledgement of that as well.

    The same will likely hold true for official word that Boeing will be required to conduct a second OFT mission and that its CFT mission – test flight with crew – won’t happen until sometime next year. There will also be tardy announcements of any other USCV missions SpaceX is to fly before Boeing’s CFT – and there might well be one or more of those.

    By that time we’ll most likely be in line for another round of bad news anent SLS.

    So it goes.

  • Wodun

    Couldn’t SpaceX launch a second capsule or even relaunch the first one?

  • sippin_bourbon

    NASA will not re-use Dragon capsules once they have been dunked in salt water.

  • Edward

    sippin_bourbon,
    You mean the Crew Dragon capsules. NASA has already agreed to reuse the unmanned resupply capsules, which are the ones called Dragon. It is the manned Crew Dragon capsules that NASA has not (yet?) agreed to reuse.

    It will be interesting to see whether NASA eventually allows previously dunked Crew Dragons to fly its astronauts to the ISS.

  • Captain Emeritus

    What is the seating capacity of Crew Dragon?
    6 or 8?
    Launch 4 astronauts. Do some demonstrating!
    Leave two on board the ISS for 6 months and the Captain and the first officer can fly Dragon
    back home in a couple of weeks.
    Boeing can do another unmanned demo flight and leave it docked (maybe) to the ISS as a lifeboat.

  • Captain Emeritus: I wouldn’t do as you suggest, and I am sure NASA won’t either. Right now we cannot depend on Starliner. And a second unmanned demo mission, if required, will be unmanned, as a test. You don’t put people on such a flight.

    Regardless, the delay is to train the astronauts. Nothing you suggest changes that. You still have to train them.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Yes, Crewed Dragon.

  • Klystron

    Has Crew Dragon or Starliner been designed / tested for the “lifeboat” mission profile? I’ve never heard that specifically discussed. Any issues with fuel / engines / life support / parachutes being left in space for six months?

  • Klystron: The way ISS is run, the capsules that bring the astronauts to the station are the lifeboats for the station. Soyuz capsules were slowly tested over many years for longer and longer missions, first on the Salyut stations and then on Mir. They can routinely be relied on for missions of at least six months.

    If a mission is that long or longer, the capsules however don’t necessarily stay in space. Instead, they rotate them out as new crews arrive.

    Both Dragon and Starliner were built with similar specifications, capable of seven months operation while docked to ISS.

  • Richard M

    What is the seating capacity of Crew Dragon?

    Presently, it’s four.

    The initial designed capacity was actually seven – which was three more than NASA required in the contract. As is, recently, a redesign of the seats at NASA’s request (to optimize safety) apparently makes it difficult to add any additional seats beyond the four presently installed, due to the spatial restrictions of the interior:

    After SpaceX had already designed the interior layout of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, NASA decided to change the specification for the angle of the ship’s seats due to concerns about the g-forces crew members might experience during splashdown.

    The change meant SpaceX had to do away with the company’s original seven-seat design for the Crew Dragon.

    “With this change and the angle of the seats, we could not get seven anymore,” Shotwell said. “So now we only have four seats. That was kind of a big change for us.”

    Link: https://spaceflightnow.com/2019/12/07/after-redesigns-the-finish-line-is-in-sight-for-spacexs-crew-dragon/

    Whether this restriction would be in place for any flights for commercial customers, however, remains to be seen…

    Anyway, the maximum the station can support on a sustained basis is 7 astronauts anyway – three on the Russian segment, four on the US segment. So four astronauts maxes out that out anyway.

  • Edward

    Richard M,
    Thank you for the link. It was very interesting and educational.

    As for commercial customers, I suspect that SpaceX will likely stay with four, because the seating arrangement was changed because “NASA decided to change the specification for the angle of the ship’s seats due to concerns about the g-forces crew members might experience during splashdown.” (From your linked article.) Since commercial passengers may be of a wider range of ages and physical conditions than NASA’s astronauts, I expect that the safer seat angle will remain in effect.

    From the article: “Experts spent months studying the physics of the accident, and learned new information about how titanium components used in aerospace vehicles might ignite under certain conditions.

    I keep saying that there is much to learn about spaceflight safety. This lesson about titanium is one that, fortunately, did not cost any lives to learn.

    Robert mentioned that the Russians also learned the maximum reasonable length that a Soyuz could remain docked to a space station and still be safe for reentry. Again, no lives lost in that lesson. My recollection is that the limiting factor is the slow loss of consumables that are needed during the reentry process.

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