SpaceX has been launching test flights to and from the International Space Station in secret — and they’ve all been a success to date.
Unfortunately for impatient space travel fans, they are all taking place entirely in Hawthorne, California.
The Crew Dragon simulation involves detailed checks of the cargo delivery spacecraft’s avionics systems, including the hardware and software. The idea was to check how the two systems would operate in conjunction during a crewed flight.
“It may not sound exciting,” admitted Space X vice president of mission assurance, Hans Koenigsmann, “but it’s a really, really important tool.”
“We can basically fly the Crew Dragon on the ground — flip the switches, touch the screens, test the algorithms and the batteries — all before testing the avionics system in flight. It’s important to get the avionics right before putting it into the capsule.”
Documenting the successful ‘launch’ on its website, Nasa compared the simulation setup to its own Shuttle Avionics Integration Lab in Houston where the Shuttle Program was put through the wringer before real life launches. It was a chance to ensure all the code was working as it should, and for final tweaks to be made.
SpaceX has already conducted successful launches of its cargo ship, Dragon, though it has experienced a series of setbacks related to its Falcon 9 rocket. The rocket is designed, in theory, to be salvageable and reusable, taking the Dragon spacecraft into orbit and helping ferry cargo to and fro from the ISS. On a test launch on 28 June however, the rocket exploded mid-flight within minutes of take-off, destroying the unmanned Dragon capsule and its cargo. Early analysis indicated the incident was down to a faulty strut.
Nevertheless, the SpaceX team hopes for another Falcon 9 launch by the end of the year, and this will help prep for a future Dragon V2 launch — a manned version of the Dragon, which the Crew Dragon simulation is designed to test. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is hoping for a 14-day manned flight to take place as soon as 2017. The V2 will be able to carry up to seven astronauts, or a mixture of crew and cargo, and is described as Nasa’s future space taxi along with another manned vehicle being developed by Boeing.
There are potentially yet more stumbling blocks on the road for SpaceX, however. On 5 August Nasa told Congress that as a direct result of its underfunding of the commercial space flight scheme, it has had to extend its contract with Russian space agency Roscosmos to deliver cargo and crew to the ISS, at a cost of $490m.
“I am asking that we put past disagreements behind us and focus our collective efforts on support for American industry — the Boeing Corporation and SpaceX — to complete construction and certification of their crew vehicles so that we can begin launching our crews from the Space Coast of Florida in 2017,” Nasa administrator Charles Bolden wrote in the statement.
Reductions in spending related to Nasa’s 2016 fund requests “would likely result in funds running out for both contractors during the spring/summer of FY 2016″, warned Bolden. This would likely lead to contract renegotiations and more unscheduled delays.