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NASA formally certifies SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for “operational” astronaut flights

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NASA officials gave approval Tuesday for SpaceX to begin regular crew rotation flights to the International Space Station with the launch of four astronauts set for Saturday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, signaling a transition from development to operations for the human-rated Dragon spacecraft.

Mission managers completed a two-day Flight Readiness Review Tuesday and issued a preliminary go-ahead for the launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon “Resilience” spacecraft Saturday at 7:49 p.m. EST (0049 GMT Sunday) with NASA commander Mike Hopkins, pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialists Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi, a veteran Japanese space flier.

Hopkins and his crewmates are setting off on a six-month mission aboard the space station, where they will join NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, who launched last month on a Russian Soyuz capsule.

“This is a big day, but the next few days are going to be big days too, and we’re going to have to be stepping carefully through our final readiness toward flight,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s human spaceflight directorate. “This thorough review today and everyone’s approval to move forward was a great first step toward flight.”

The review doubled as a major certification milestone for the Crew Dragon program. NASA officials signed off on the SpaceX’s crew capsule’s readiness for a series of crew rotation flights to the International Space Station, capping a decade of design, development, and testing of the Crew Dragon, its Falcon 9 launcher, and ground systems to support the program.

“I’m extremely proud to say we are returning regular human spaceflight launches to American soil on an American rocket and spacecraft,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement. “This certification milestone is an incredible achievement from NASA and SpaceX that highlights the progress we can make working together with commercial industry.”

“Thank you to NASA for their continued support of SpaceX and partnership in achieving this goal,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, CEO, and chief engineer. “I could not be more proud of everyone at SpaceX and all of our suppliers who worked incredibly hard to develop, test, and fly the first commercial human spaceflight system in history to be certified by NASA.”

NASA officials signed off on the Human Rating Certification Plan for SpaceX on Tuesday after reviewing data from numerous ground tests, demonstrations of the Crew Dragon’s launch abort system, an unpiloted test flight to the space station in March 2019, and the Crew Dragon’s first mission with astronauts earlier this year.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken successfully launched in a Crew Dragon to the space station in May, the first flight of astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. Hurley and Behnken’s test flight concluded Aug. 2 with a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico.

SpaceX’s crew transportation system is the first to be certified by NASA for regular astronaut flights since the space shuttle nearly 40 years ago, the space agency said. It’s the first commercial crew vehicle NASA has ever certified for Earth orbit missions.

“This is a great honor that inspires confidence in our endeavor to return to the moon, travel to Mars, and ultimately help humanity become multi-planetary,” Musk said in a statement.

SpaceX said it performed more than 700 tests of the Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco abort engines, more than 500 joint soft-capture tests to validate the Crew Dragon’s docking system design, and about 8 million hours of hardware in the loop software testing. The company said it also conducted nearly 100 tests of the Crew Dragon’s parachutes, in addition to 20 successful cargo resupply missions to the space station and more than 40 launches of the latest version of the Falcon 9 rocket.

NASA turned to the private sector to take over crew and cargo transportation services for the space station after the end of the space shuttle program. SpaceX commenced operational cargo delivery services to the station in 2012, and Northrop Grumman started flying its Cygnus supply ship to the orbiting outpost in 2013.

NASA has signed contracts with SpaceX worth more than $3.1 billion to develop, test, certify, and fly the Crew Dragon spacecraft. That money includes payments to SpaceX for development milestones and six operational crew rotation flights to the space station, the first of which is the Crew-1 mission scheduled for liftoff Saturday.

The space agency also has brokered a series of agreements with Boeing valued at more than $5 billion for similar work on the Starliner crew capsule, which has yet to fly with astronauts on-board. Boeing continues working through software issues encountered an unpiloted test flight of its Starliner capsule last year.

Another Starliner test flight without astronauts is currently scheduled for launch in the first three months of 2021, followed by a demonstration mission with a three-person crew later next year, according to Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager.

SpaceX and Boeing combined have received around $5 billion from NASA for development of the Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft, and their associated launch and ground systems. The rest of the contract money goes toward crew transportation services after certification for regular rotation flights to the space station.

NASA guaranteed SpaceX and Boeing each a minimum of six crew rotation missions to the space station. The commercial crew program is ending NASA’s sole reliance on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for crew access to the station.

Lueders told reporters Tuesday that the formal certification of SpaceX for crew transportation services will not change the way NASA manages risk and safety for human spaceflight missions.

“Even though we’re certified, I don’t treat this flight any differently than I would any other flight,” Lueders said. “We’re going to methodically make sure that we’re ready to go launch, and then in flight, we’ll look at how the vehicle is performing. And then when we return, we’ll look at the post-flight data for each phase of flight, and then look at anything we can do better, and then move forward to Crew-2.” Read from source….