This year began with NASA's goal of once again flying astronauts in sight, with partner SpaceX a few months away from launching its first crew.
Then coronavirus swept across the U.S.
NASA began locking down its centers last month in response to the mounting COVID-19 crisis, with over 245,000 cases in the U.S. A handful of NASA employees have tested positive for the virus and about half of the agency's centers are now at its most elevated response level, meaning all facilities are closed. Only employees working on programs deemed "mission essential" are continuing to come in, with a mandatory work from home policy in place for about 75% of NASA's workforce.
But despite the pandemic, the SpaceX "Demo-2" mission is moving forward.
As its name implies, Demo-2 will be the second time the company launches its Crew Dragon capsule to the International Space Station. But, unlike Demo-1 last year, this time two astronauts will be on board – a pair that will be the first NASA astronauts to launch from the U.S. since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.
"We need access to the International Space Station from the United States of America. Commercial Crew is the program that's going to make that happen. It's essential for our country to have that capability," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told CNBC. "We are going to move forward."
Bridenstine spoke from his home in Oklahoma as, like most of NASA, the agency's leader is working remotely. But even if he can't be there in person, Bridenstine is resolute in his support of getting Demo-2 off the ground. NASA announced on March 18 that the agency and SpaceX are planning Demo-2's launch for the latter half of May, as the mission was one of the few that NASA leadership deemed mission essential.
He said that NASA and SpaceX feel "pretty confident" that it will launch without a major delay, as "we're working through the coronavirus pandemic." He admitted that the rapidly evolving crisis means "we don't know what the outcome is going to be" but said that "but if it gets delayed a little bit, we're going to be OK with that."
"We're going to get it done," Bridenstine said.
NASA has awarded SpaceX more than $3.1 billion under the Commercial Crew program to fund development of the capsule, with the company also contributing hundreds of millions of dollars of its own funds when needed. Boeing is also developing its Starliner spacecraft to compete for contracts, with the company having received more than $4.8 billion in awards since Commercial Crew began.
There are about 350 NASA employees that work for the Commercial Crew program and Bridenstine said that the agency is "making sure that we're practicing all of our social distancing measures." Employees are using personal protective equipment when needed and are working in rotations.
"We're using shifts of workers in a way that we can enable more distancing," Bridenstine said.
Bridenstine's additional impetus for charging forward with Demo-2 is that he believes it would be a morale boost for a nation battered by the crisis. Many states have fully shut down, with closing businesses
leading to unemployment for millions of Americans as state governments seek to counter the spread of coronavirus. To Bridenstine, launching astronauts would be a moment of hope among so much turmoil.
"It's going to uplift America. We need that moment right now in American history," Bridenstine said.
NASA has invited the press to apply for access to come to Florida to document the launch. But the invitation had an important caveat: "NASA is proactively monitoring the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation as it evolves."
While Bridenstine said the agency wants to host as many as it can to see the historic mission, NASA's medical officials may change or limit media access depending upon the crisis situation at the time of the launch. But Bridenstine said NASA is focused on leveraging its resources to broadcast the launch live, regardless of how many people are able to see it in person,
"We're going to showcase it," Bridenstine. "We want to do as much as we can to reach every person in America and, in fact, every person in the world and we have the ability to do that with the technology that exists today"
NASA is analyzing "two big things" related to Crew Dragon before it signs off on SpaceX launching Demo-2, Bridenstine said: The spacecraft's parachute and emergency escape systems.
SpaceX is close to finishing tests for its new "Mark 3" parachute system. The company last year found a flaw in parachute designs used since the Apollo era and began redesigning the parachutes that will slow Crew Dragon before it splashes down in the ocean at the end of a mission.
SpaceX completed 24 tests of its new parachutes as of March 24, when the company had an issue during a drop test: The heavy parachute test device "became unstable" underneath a helicopter and was dropped before the parachutes could be armed to deploy, so the test didn't happen. Bridenstine noted that SpaceX plans to do two more parachute tests using a C-130 aircraft, instead of a helicopter, and he expects to see positive results.
"We feel really good about that so far," Bridenstine said of the parachutes.
The second milestone is final approval for changes SpaceX made to the capsule's emergency escape system last year. Crew Dragon has SuperDraco rocket engines on board — small but powerful motors that can accelerate the capsule away from the company's rocket in the event of an emergency. But during a test of those engines after Demo-1, an explosive chain reaction destroyed the spacecraft. SpaceX has been testing a fix to that system, including two successful demonstrations on the ground and in flight recently.
Bridenstine said the results of that fix "look good," and SpaceX is nearly finished with additional tests in New Mexico at the White Sands Missile Range.
"We've done testing on that out at White Sands, that testing is all but complete at this point. Everybody feels very confident in that," Bridenstine said.
While not one of the two major remaining milestones, Bridenstine did also note that NASA is looking into data from a SpaceX launch of its Starlink satellites on Mar. 18. During the successful launch, one of the Falcon 9 rocket's engines shut down unexpectedly mid-flight – and, as Crew Dragon will launch on a Falcon 9 rocket, NASA wants to be sure the engine issue does not add any risk to its crewed mission. The agency joined SpaceX in its investigation of the early engine shutdown.
"We want to get a good understanding of what happened there," Bridenstine said.
NASA said its received the initial data analysis of the incident, with Bridenstine noting that the launch was the fifth time SpaceX had launched that particular rocket.
"We are using new engines for the Demo-2 launch," Bridenstine said. "I don't think necessarily that [the engine issue] is going to be a showstopper."
The organizations conducted a full simulation of Demo-2 in mid-March. SpaceX teams in Florida worked alongside NASA flight controllers in Texas while astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were strapped into a simulator at the company's California HQ. The agency said the teams have completed "a series of mission simulations from launch to landing" over the past several months, with only a few more simulations and final crew training remaining.
NASA says its astronaut trainers "are closely adhering to CDC recommendations on infection control," with a "limited" number of employees coming in contact with Behnken and Hurley.
"We always quarantine all of the astronauts before they go to the International Space Station ... now we're taking even more precautions," Bridenstine said.
This mission is still technically considered a test flight, even though it will be the first time SpaceX flies astronauts to space. But the length of Demo-2 has been a key question, with NASA looking at extending it beyond the original plan of just a few days to the space station and back.
"Depending on when we launch they're going to be up there for probably two to three months," Bridenstine said.
Bridenstine explained that the plan is to bring Behnken and Hurley back a month before Crew-1, which the agency considers to be Crew Dragon's "first operational" flight. Crew-1 will mark the official start of SpaceX flying astronauts on regular missions to the ISS.
"We bring them back a month before we're ready to launch Crew-1 so we can take that month and investigate every part of the crew capsule," Bridenstine said. "So the length of their stay on the ISS is going to be dependent on when the Crew Dragon is ready for Crew-1."
He expects SpaceX will be ready with the next Crew Dragon capsule for Crew-1 to launch on time. Given the estimated schedule for Demo-2, the Crew-1 launch is targeting roughly August.
"We want to get into the regular crew launch schedule," Bridenstine said. "We want to have as many crew as possible on the space station for as much time as possible, that's what we're trying to optimize."
NASA this week unveiled the four astronauts that will fly on Crew-1. NASA assigned astronaut Shannon Walker to join previously announced astronauts Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover Jr., with Japan's space agency JAXA announcing that astronaut Soichi Noguchi would also be on the six month mission.
When Demo-2 launches it will represent the turn of human spaceflight to the U.S., ending years of reliance on Russian spacecraft. Bridenstine said NASA is regularly talking to Vice President Mike Pence about Demo-2, as he hopes to host the country's executive leadership at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to see the launch in person.
"I would imagine that the White House is going to make a determination of who comes in the coming days," Bridenstine said.
SpaceX Demo-2 is one of two launches that Bridenstine says "are going to stun the world" in the coming months. The other launch is known as "Mars 2020," a rover that NASA plans to launch in July. The agency last month unveiled that, after a nationwide student contest, the rover's name is Perseverance.
"That robot being named Perseverance is absolutely perfect because that's what we do as an agency, it's what we do as a nation," Bridenstine said. "We persevere."
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