This weekend a very important event happened, something many rocket enthusiasts have been waiting for. The first capsule designed to hold commercial crew was launched by SpaceX. A successful launch, the Falcon 9 carrying the first crew Dragon lifted off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Centre, Cape Canaveral, FL on the 2nd of March 2019 at 07:49 UTC. This was the first orbital test of the Dragon capsule, and although it was unmanned, it did hold a dummy test astronaut nicknamed Ripley, after the heroine from Alien.
The capsule was launched on top of the 70m tall Falcon 9 that had minor changes to work with NASA’s strict requirements for commercial crew. Trailing off in a north easterly direction, the Dragon capsule sailed on a 27 hour autonomous route towards the International Space Station. The capsule itself is 16ft tall, and 13ft in diameter, and is designed to be able to hold 7 people in relative comfort (compared to the previous equivalents). This capsule sits on top of a trunk that could contain some cargo on future trips. The capsule is 12ft tall, 12ft in diameter, and coated in solar arrays. The cargo section is not designed to survive a journey back to Earth, with the heat shield and thermal protection system being on the capsule itself.
The first stage of the Falcon 9 powered through the thick lower atmosphere for about 2 and a half minutes before shutting down and separating. The booster B1051.1 was brand new, performing landing burns on its way back through the atmosphere to come back and land successfully on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You”. The landing was particularly rough with choppy seas out in the Atlantic that day. The booster did not manage to hit right on the X on the pad, but was still stood up when it returned to port Canaveral. This was a big moment as it is now the 35th successful booster recovery. Just a minute after the first stage landed the second stage engine cut-off. A few moments later the Crew Dragon was released from the second stage to begin the 27 hour journey to the ISS.
The 400lb capsule glided to an automated docking early on Sunday morning, completing one of the major milestones of the mission. Aided by a laser rangefinder and a thermal camera the Dragon capsule approached the space station and linked with the docking port on the forward end of the complex at 10:51 UTC. This is now the first privately owned human rated spaceship to reach the ISS. The link up happened at over 400km over the northern end of New Zealand during what is known as orbital night time. The capsule first held back at around 60 m from the station, testing radio links. When given the go ahead it then moved towards the ISS at 10cm per second or 0.2mph. The capsule actually arrived 9 minutes ahead of schedule when the latches engaged to create a connection with the International docking adapter.
The station docking adaptor was installed over the old space shuttle docking port, at the forward end of the Harmony module. The arrival marks the first time a visiting spaceship has docked there since the last flight of the shuttle Atlantis in 2011. Once docked 12 hooks closed to forma firm mechanical connection, and then two umbilical lines were attached by robotic arms to allow the stations electrical system to power the Dragon module during the stay. After a number of checks, Saint-Jacques opened the crew Dragons hatch, becoming the first person to board the ship. The crew wore face masks when entering the Dragon, as they would with any other visiting spacecraft, for precaution. Once the capsule was given the all clear the crew removed their masks and unloaded the 100 lb of cargo stowed under the seats. On board the Dragon was a small stuffed toy in the shape of Earth, made by Celestial Buddies. NASA astronaut Anne McClain quickly picked it up and made a video with it. Celestial buddies were unaware that they would have one of their toys would be going on a mission, and they are therefore sold out for now, but they have some great other toys on offer instead.
The Crew Dragon will depart the space station early on Friday at 07:31 UTC, followed by a de-orbit burn at 12:50 UTC. The spacecraft jettisons the unpressurised trunk section, with the solar panels and radiator, what will burn up in the atmosphere. The heat shield on the Crew dragon will then protect it as it comes into the atmosphere from a northwest to southeast direction. Aiming for a splashdown under the four parachutes somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, east of Cape Canaveral at 13:45 UTC. The next big test for the Crew Dragon will be a launch where the launch escape system is tested. Designed to push the capsule away from the rocket if there is a major failure, that launch will be in late June of 2019 if all goes well. The first crewed mission is planned for July this year.
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