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UPDATE, May 13, 2015: Senator Cruz issued a press statement today that includes expressions of support for the bill from a variety of commercial space industry companies and organizations.
ORIGINAL STORY, May 12, 2015: The sponsors of a bipartisan Senate bill to update the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) issued a statement today saying the bill responds to the needs of a changing industry. The bill brings the future of the International Space Station (ISS) into the commercial space launch debate. The two are intertwined with the advent of the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs, but the bill language is more general, formally committing the United States to ISS operations through 2024 as proposed by the White House last year. The bill is quite different from legislation that will be marked up by a House committee tomorrow.
S. 1297 is co-sponsored on the Republican side by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and fellow presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) along with freshman Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO). Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and freshman Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) represent the Democrats. Cruz chairs the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Peters is the top Democrat (ranking member) on that panel. Nelson is the ranking member of the full committee. Cruz, Rubio, Nelson and Gardner are from States with strong government and commercial space sectors.
Entitled the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, S. 1297 would extend the "learning period" for commercial human spaceflight, as well as the FAA's authority to provide third-party indemnification to U.S. launch services providers, to 2020. The learning period refers to a span of years when the FAA is not allowed to promulgate new regulations governing commercial human spaceflight that might stifle that industry's growth as it gains experience. The indemnification provision means that the government would pay for certain amounts of damages to uninvolved individuals in the event of a launch accident (the commercial companies must purchase insurance to cover other amounts). The government has had Indemnification authority for commercial launches since 1988, but Congress extends it for set periods of time rather than permanently so it can periodically review whether it is still needed.
Those provisions are different from legislation that will be marked up by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee tomorrow. That committee is set to debate four commercial space bills, one of which -- the SPACE Act, sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) -- is also intended to update CSLA. The House and Senate bills are different in many ways.
The House bill would extend the learning period and third-party indemnification through 2023 rather than 2020. It addresses a range of other issues including space traffic management and a sense of Congress statement that States should take proper measures to secure their investments in space launch facilities.
The Senate bill does not discuss either of those issues, but commits the United States to continued operation and utilization of ISS, which is not addressed in the House bill. S. 1297 would enact into law a U.S. commitment to ISS operations through at least 2024, instead of at least 2020 as stated in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The White House announced over a year ago that it plans to continue ISS operations through 2024, but that is not codified in law yet.
The Senate bill also calls on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to determine what federal agenc(ies) should oversee various aspects of the commercial utilization of space, and for the FAA to streamline approval of licenses and permits for hybrid vehicles that currently must deal with two separate FAA offices.
S. 1297 also includes language requiring the Secretary of Transportation in consultation with the Secretary of Defense and others to submit a study on the feasibility of releasing "safety-related space situational awareness [SSA] data and information." DOD's willingness (or lack thereof) to release certain SSA data on the locations of U.S. and other satellites to commercial space operators is a long-running debate. While SSA is part of space traffic management, the provisions in the House and Senate bills seem only tangentially related to each other.
There are similarities, though. Both bills add and define "government astronaut" as a type of individual who might be aboard a commercial human space flight, encourage industry to develop voluntary standards for commercial human spaceflight, smooth the process for moving from experimental permit to a license, and encourage the FAA to update how it calculates "maximum probable loss" in determining how much insurance commercial launch services companies must purchase.
The House and Senate bills both are very broad and include many other provisions.
The Senate Commerce Committee has not announced a date to mark up S. 1297. Cruz held a hearing on commercial space issues on February 25 and he has stated several times that updating CSLA is his first priority as subcommittee chairman.
NASA and its partners in the International Space Station (ISS) program decided today to extend the mission of three ISS crew members who were supposed to return to Earth tomorrow and postpone the launch of their replacements. The schedule change was prompted by the failure of Russia's robotic Progress M-27M spacecraft last week.
Progress M-27M reentered over the Pacific Ocean on May 7 Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) and Roscosmos proposed changes to ISS crew and cargo flights at that time. NASA announced today agreement among all the partners to the revised schedule, though exact dates have not been determined. The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency (ESA).
NASA's Terry Virts, ESA's Samantha Cristoforetti and Roscosmos' Anton Shkaplerov were scheduled to return to Earth on their Soyuz TMA-15 spacecraft tomorrow (May 13). The exact date for their rescheduled return in early June will be determined later. The launch of their replacements on Soyuz TMA-17M will be postponed from May 26 to late July. The three other ISS crew members now aboard ISS are NASA's Scott Kelly, and Roscosmos' Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka. Kelly and Kornienko are part of the first one-year mission aboard ISS and will not return until March 2016. Padalka is currently scheduled to come home in September.
Progress M-27M was launched on April 28, 2015 EDT and immediately ran into trouble. A malfunction at the time it separated from the third stage of its Soyuz 2.1a rocket left both in incorrect orbits and the Progress spacecraft spinning. One theory is that the third stage exploded, debris punctured the spacecraft's fuel line, and venting fuel put Progress into a spin. Roscosmos said today that the State Commission investigating the accident will conclude its work by May 22.
Progress M-27M was the second of four planned Progress cargo missions to the ISS this year. The next had been scheduled for August 6, but the new schedule will accelerate that by about a month.
The new plan is as follows:
NASA refers to Progress M-27M as Progress 59 because it is the 59th Progress to resupply ISS, but the Progress spacecraft has been in use by Russia since 1977 so there have been many more flights than that. It was carrying three tons of food, fuel and other supplies for the ISS crew, but NASA insists that U.S. operations are not affected by the failure.
A U.S. SpaceX Dragon cargo craft is currently attached to the ISS, and three more are scheduled this year. Japan's HTV cargo spacecraft is scheduled for launch in August and the U.S. Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo spacecraft is expected to be launched by the end of the year. NASA said, however, that all of the dates for the remaining flights to ISS this year are under review.
As members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) get ready to mark up their version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), replacing Russia’s RD-180 rocket engine is only one topic on their minds. Cost overruns and schedule delays on the next generation of GPS satellites, access to weather satellite data to support DOD needs, and ensuring U.S. satellites can operate in a potentially hostile environment also are concerns.
These issues were debated at a SASC Strategic Forces subcommittee hearing on April 29. Although RD-180 dominated the discussion, it was not the only topic.
GPS III. Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that the first of the new generation of GPS positioning, navigation and timing satellites, GPS III, is over two years behind schedule because of technical and manufacturing problems. Launch of the first satellite has slipped 28 months, from April 2014 to August 2016.
The associated ground system, OCX, which promises anti-jamming capabilities, is four years late because of many issues including a “struggle to incorporate information assurance requirements…system engineering shortcomings, and management and oversight issues.” Chaplain told committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that although the Air Force has “put a lot of corrective actions in place,” GAO remains concerned about management, oversight and contractor capabilities.
McCain said the program is $471 million, or 11 percent, over budget and demanded to know who was being held responsible. Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) Deborah Lee James replied the contractor had lost $160 million in fees and “we’re assessing other individuals to see if there’s other levels of accountability.”
DOD Weather Satellites. DOD is closing in on a strategy for its weather satellite program after several years of analyzing alternatives following the 2010 cancellation of the DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). DOD had two of its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites in storage at the time so was not in a rush to make a decision. One of those two, DMSP-19, was launched last year.
The Air Force initially decided that it did not need the other, DMSP-20, but has changed its mind. Hyten said the FY2016 request includes funds to continue storing and eventually launch it. One key factor is that DOD has been relying on data from a European geostationary weather satellite, Meteosat 7, for coverage of the Indian Ocean region to support operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East. That satellite is at the end of its life and the European meteorological satellite organization, EUMETSAT, is not replacing it. SecAF James told the subcommittee that the Europeans said last year they would replace it, but “reversed themselves,” leaving the Air Force in a quandary. Eumetsat denies that it changed course and never planned to replace that satellite.
In any case, Hyten and James said that DMSP-20 now is needed to avoid gaps in coverage even though it will cost “hundreds of millions of dollars.” One alternative – relying on data from Chinese or Russian satellites that cover that region – is unacceptable to Congress and to DOD.
Other factors in DMSP-20’s favor were that it would give DOD more time to make a final decision about its path forward on weather satellites, offer an additional competitive launch opportunity (implying that SpaceX could compete for this launch), and “indeed, the NGA and our own Air Force weather teams very, very much want to see that satellite launched,” James explained.
As for the next generation of DOD weather satellites, Hyten said that James had just approved using Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) principles for its Weather System Follow-on program. ORS was created to meet tactical needs with small, inexpensive satellites that can be built and launched quickly. Congress has been strongly supportive of ORS in the past, but will have to approve the decision to use it for the weather satellite program.
Space Security. Three days before the hearing, CBS’s 60 Minutes program aired a segment featuring Hyten and James discussing the vulnerability of U.S. satellites to potential hostile action by countries like China and Russia.
Subcommittee chairman Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) opened the hearing by referencing the program and quoting several other DOD officials who have commented publicly on this issue. He also noted that Hyten recently briefed the committee “on a number of troubling developments regarding our adversary’s desire to threaten U.S. space capabilities” and went on to say that “Russia and China have militarized space, there is no doubt about it.” Subcommittee Ranking Member Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) called the 60 Minutes segment a “wake-up call” for the nation.
The discussion during the open part of the hearing was very general, but the committee later moved into a closed session where classified information could be discussed. In open session, James said that the Air Force has “directed, redirected or increased” planned funding for the next five years to provide $5 billion in classified and unclassified programs for “improving our space security at the enterprise level” and “incorporating security requirements in all of our space capabilities going forward.” Hyten said we must “be prepared to defend ourselves” including increasing mission assurance “by emphasizing resilience, reconstitution and defensive operations across many of our future programs.”
In other venues, the funding has been described as augmenting DOD capabilities to protect U.S. satellites, to deter and defend against hostile attacks, and, if necessary, defeat them. Doug Loverro, Deputy Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, said at a March 25 House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing that the United States remains “absolutely committed to assuring the peaceful use of space for all” but “we can no longer view space as a sanctuary” and the additional funds “will make clear to all that attacks in space are not only strategically ill advised but militarily ineffective.”
SASC Markup Begins Tomorrow
SASC's Strategic Forces subcommittee will markup its portion of the NDAA tomorrow and the full committee will deal with it over the following three days. Those meetings are closed. Meanwhile, across Capitol Hill, the House Armed Services Committee completed its markup on April 30 and the House is scheduled to debate the bill beginning this Wednesday.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of May 11-15, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
Two important markups and a House floor vote are on tap this week. The first markup is the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) consideration of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Unlike its House counterpart (HASC), which holds its markups in the open, SASC and most of its subcommittees -- including the Strategic Forces subcommittee that handles military space programs -- meet in closed session where they can discuss classified matters. Many question why the SASC meetings can't be open like those in the House, including the reporters who cover Capitol Hill. The Standing Committee of Correspondents wrote to SASC Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) asking him to reconsider, but as of today, the Strategic Forces subcommittee and full committee meetings remain closed.
HASC completed markup of its version of the bill on April 30. The bill is scheduled for floor consideration in the House this week beginning on Wednesday.
The second markup is of four commercial space bills. The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will take them up on Wednesday at 2:00 pm ET. Included is the long awaited update of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) that addresses a wide range of issues, including two legal provisions that will expire if Congress does not act. One is the so-called "learning period" for commercial human spaceflight whereby the FAA is not allowed to issue new regulations that might stifle this nascent industry before it has a chance to get off the ground (so to speak). The existing prohibition expires on September 30 and commercial spaceflight advocates want it extended at least until they have some experience (not a single U.S. commercial human spaceflight has occurred yet despite promises that such flights would begin years ago). The bill (which does not have a number yet) would extend the learning period to 2023 and encourage the development of voluntary industry standards as a possible alternative to legislation. George Nield, who heads the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation and usually is an ardent proponent of the commercial space industry, disagrees with industry on this one, insisting that sufficient experience with human spaceflight exists already through government programs to inform regulations needed to ensure safety for passengers and crews. The bill covers many other topics, including extending until 2023 the government's authority to indemnify commercial space launch companies against certain amounts of third-party liability in the event of accident (existing authority expires next year). The other three bills deal with establishing property rights for U.S. commercial companies that mine asteroids (H.R. 1508), facilitating NOAA's issuance of commercial remote sensing licenses (unnumbered), and a bill to rename NOAA's Office of Space Commercialization as the Office of Space Commerce and expand its authorities (unnumbered).
Also scheduled this week is the return of three ISS crew members on Soyuz TMA-15M. NASA's Terry Virts, ESA's Samantha Cristoforetti and Roscosmos's Anton Shkaplerov are supposed to come home on Wednesday, although Roscosmos was proposing changes to the ISS crew rotation schedule because of the problems with its Progress M-27M spacecraft. No changes have been announced as of this writing, however.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, May 11
Tuesday-Wednesday, May 11-12
Tuesday-Friday, May 12-15
Wednesday, May 13
The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will mark up four bills on May 13, 2015 dealing with a broad range of commercial space activities. Three of the bills have yet to be introduced, but SpacePolicyOnline.com obtained copies. In total, they span everything from regulating commercial human spaceflight to third party indemnification to property rights for mining asteroids to expanding the role of NOAA's Office of Space Commercialization.
The committee announced the markup and the titles of the bills late this afternoon. Only one has a bill number because the others are yet to be introduced. The bills are:
According to the copies obtained by SpacePolicyOnline.com, the four bills have the following goals:
The markup is at 2:00 pm ET on May 13, 2015.
UPDATE: Adds information on JSpOC confirming the reentry.
The Progress M-27M spacecraft reentered over the Pacific Ocean at 05:04 Moscow Time on May 8 (10:04 pm Eastern Daylight Time tonight) according to Russia's space agency, Roscosmos. Roscosmos reportedy is proposing changes to the schedule for launching the next crews and cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) as they continue to diagnose and remedy what went wrong.
Roscosmos said in a statement that the robotic spacecraft, which was carrying about three tons of cargo intended to resupply the ISS crew, "ceased to exist ... over the central Pacific Ocean" at 05:04 Moscow Time on May 8 (May 7, 10:04 pm EDT). The U.S. Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) later issued a statement confirming the reentry.
Launched on April 28, the spacecraft apparently was damaged when the third stage of its Soyuz 2.1a rocket suffered a malfunction as the two reached orbit. Anatoly Zak at RussianSpaceWeb.com reported yesterday that Russian experts believe the third stage exploded, damaging the spacecraft and puncturing its fuel lines, putting it into a spin as the fuel vented into space. Russian flight controllers initially received conflicting data about the spacecraft's status, then received video from an onboard camera showing it rotating several times a minute. Soon thereafter, the mission was declared a total loss.
A Roscosmos working group is proposing changes to the next launches of ISS personnel and cargo as efforts continue to determine what happened with the Soyuz 2.1a rocket. This was the second of four planned Progress launches to ISS this year. The next two are currently scheduled for August 6 and October 22. Russia uses a different variant of the Soyuz rocket to launch three-person crews on Soyuz spacecraft. Three more Soyuz crew launches are scheduled this year: May 26, September 1, and November 20.
The proposal is to delay the next Soyuz crew launch, Soyuz TMA-17M carrying Oleg Kononenko from Roscosmos, Kimiya Yui from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and Kjell Lindgren from NASA, until June 11 according to Russia's official news agency, Tass. Another Progress flight would be launched in late June/early July, and then another crew launch at the end of July, a separate Tass story stated. These dates are all preliminary at this time.
UPDATE, May 7, 2015, 8:30 pm EDT: Aerospace Corp's latest prediction is May 8 02:41 UTC ±2 hrs. Subtract 4 for EDT. Its groundtrack is:
UPDATE, May 7, 2015, 7:45 pm EDT: JSpOC's newest prediction is 01:52 GMT May 8, which is 9:52 pm EDT tonight (May 7).
UPDATE, May 7, 2015, 2:05 pm EDT: Roscosmos has issued a new update, estimating the reentry will occur between 01:13 and 04:51 Moscow Time on May 8. That is today, May 7, between 6:13 pm and 9:51 pm EDT. JSpOC's latest estimate is 01:36 UTC on May 8 which is 9:36 pm EDT tonight. Aerospace Corp's latest is May 8, 01:08 UTC ± 2 hours (subtract 4 for EDT) and it has posted a ground track showing the reentry path.
ORIGINAL STORY, May 7, 2015, 8:27 am EDT: Russia's space agency Roscosmos has refined its estimate of when the Progress M-27M spacecraft will reenter Earth's atmosphere. Its current estimate is on May 8 between 00:45 and 06:26 Moscow Time, which is May 7 (today) 5:45 pm - 11:26 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). It plans to issue an update later today.
Russia is not the only source of estimates of the reentry time.
The fact that so many estimates exist illustrates the difficulty in calculating when any space object will reenter in an uncontrolled situation like this. Many factors must be taken into account including solar activity and the size, shape and composition of the object. The only factor known with certainty is the boundaries of the latitude on Earth where surviving debris could fall, which is set by the object's orbital parameters. In this case, Progress M-27M is in a 51.6 degree orbit, so debris could fall anywhere between 51.6 degrees North latitude and 51.6 degrees South latitude. Since 70 percent of the world's surface is water, and much of the land is sparsely populated, the chances of debris hitting a person or building is small, but does exist.
Progress M-27M was launched on a Soyuz- 2.1a rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 28. A malfunction in the rocket or spacecraft caused it to fail as it reached orbit. The failure is still under investigation. NASA refers to it as Progress 59 because it is the 59th Progress to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). This is the second of four planned Progress resupply flights this year. The schedule for the remaining two is uncertain until the cause of this failure is understood and rectified.
ISS is also supplied by two U.S. spacecraft (SpaceX's Dragon and Orbital ATK's Cygnus) and Japan's HTV. A Dragon is currently attached to ISS and three more launches are planned this year. An HTV launch is scheduled for August and a Cygnus is expected by the end of the year. NASA says U.S. operations aboard the ISS will not be affected by the loss of this Progress.
The pad abort test for SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft lifted off on time at 9:00 am ET this morning at Cape Canaveral, FL. The test is related to readying the crew version of Dragon to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
The test lasted about 1.5 minutes as the Dragon capsule lifted off from its launch pad -- minus a rocket -- firing its eight integrated Super Draco engines to simulate the capsule's ability to escape from an emergency situation at launch.
Everything appeared to take place as planned, with Dragon reaching an altitude of about 5,000 feet, deploying its parachutes, and splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean about one mile off shore. It will be recovered and returned to SpaceX's McGregor, TX facility for analysis.
SpaceX released a video of the countdown and test (launch is about 15:55 into the video).
The Super Draco engines provide an abort capability all the way to orbit, unlike "escape towers" used in the early days of U.S. human spaceflight and still used by Russia and China that are jettisoned at a certain altitude. SpaceX eventually plans to use them to return Dragon to Earth propulsively to land on terra firma rather than splashing down in the ocean.
SpaceX Dragon spacecraft splashes down at end of pad abort test, May 6, 2015. Photo credit: NASA
SpaceX and NASA plan an in-flight abort test later this year where Dragon will be launched on a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA and the abort system will be initiated in flight. The date for the test will not be set until the results from this test are known.
This test is part of SpaceX's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) agreement with NASA and a further step towards developing and certifying Dragon's ability to carry crews to space as a commercial service for NASA -- called "commercial crew." The current version of Dragon carries only cargo (one is attached to the ISS now). The crew version, Dragon V2, is expected to be ready to take people to space by 2017.
SpaceX and Boeing were selected by NASA last year for Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts, the final phase of the commercial crew development program and initiation of services. Boeing is developing its own CST-100 spacecraft, which will be launched by United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets.
Russia's failed Progress M-27M cargo spacecraft is expected to reenter Earth's atmosphere on Wednesday or Thursday Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), Russia's Roscosmos space agency said today. Launched on April 28 EDT, the spacecraft and/or its launch vehicle suffered a failure that left it in the wrong orbit and made it incapable of docking with the International Space Station (ISS) as planned. The failure is still under investigation.
Progress M-27M was launched on a Soyuz 2-1a rocket at 3:09 am EDT on April 28. Shortly after reaching orbit, Russian flight controllers began receiving conflicting data from the spacecraft about the deployment of solar panels and rendezvous antennas. Video from an on-board camera showed the spacecraft rotating several times a minute. Within a day, the Russians declared that the mission was lost.
The spacecraft is carrying about three tons of food, fuel and other supplies for the ISS crew. This is the second of four planned Progress missions to ISS this year. Other spacecraft also resupply the ISS (a U.S. SpaceX Dragon is attached there now and three more are planned this year, a Japanese HTV is scheduled for launch in August, and a U.S. Orbital ATK Cygnus may also be launched this year) so the crew members are fine.
Roscosmos today predicted that the spacecraft will reenter on May 8, 2015 between 1:23 am and 9:55 pm Moscow Time, which is between 6:23 pm May 7 and 2:00 pm May 8 EDT. Most of the spacecraft is expected to burn up during reentry, although Roscosmos said some small pieces may survive. Russia's official Itar-Tass news agency quotes an unnamed industry official as identifying "more than a dozen spherical tanks" made of "thick-walled metal" as the most likely to survive because of their composition and the fact that they are sheltered by the spacecraft's hull.
Ordinarily, Progress spacecraft make a controlled deorbit into the Pacific Ocean at the end of their mission, but that is not possible this time. It is almost impossible to forecast where a spacecraft will reenter in an uncontrolled situation other than knowing its upper and lower latitude bounds which are set by its orbit. In this case, that is between 51.6 degrees north latitude and 51.6 degrees south latitude. Since 70 percent of the Earth's surface is water, and much of the land is sparsely populated, the chances of damage to people or homes is small, but does exist.
Anatoly Zak at RussianSpaceWeb.com reports that experts are focusing on the last three seconds of the rocket's firing and separation between the rocket and spacecraft as the time when the failure occurred. Evidence increasingly points "toward an explosion aboard the rocket, which damaged the spacecraft, while some considerable force still propelled both vehicles to different orbits," he writes, adding the spacecraft reportedly never fired its engines and propellant venting from "lines punctured by a nearby explosion of the third stage" set the spacecraft tumbling.
UPDATE, May 5, 10:15 pm ET: NASA and Space X announced this evening that the launch window will open at 9:00 am ET instead of 7:00 am ET and close at 4:00 pm ET rather than 2:30 pm ET.
ORIGINAL STORY, May 5, 5:06 pm ET: The pad abort test of SpaceX's Dragon capsule is still on schedule for tomorrow, May 6, 2015. The window is open from 7:00 am - 2:30 pm ET. The weather is 70 percent favorable.
The test is part of SpaceX's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) agreement with NASA to develop a crew version of its Dragon spacecraft for taking astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX also hopes there will be a market for taking other people to and from space, but in this case the test is directly related to its goal of servicing the ISS for NASA.
The test does not involve the use of a Falcon 9 rocket. Instead, it is a test of the integrated abort system that is part of the Dragon capsule itself. Unlike the "escape towers" used on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s, the Dragon system uses eight "Super Draco" liquid fueled engines in the sides of the spacecraft. Thus they are with the spacecraft all the way up to orbit so the capsule could return to Earth in an emergency throughout the ride. The earlier systems were jettisoned after the capsules reached a certain altitude.
This is the first time SpaceX will fire eight Super Draco engines at once. The most that have been fired together in the past was two. The engines are designed into the spacecraft because SpaceX hopes eventually to use them to land Dragons back on Earth propulsively, rather than using parachutes and dropping into the ocean. Thus they serve two functions -- as an abort system on the way up and, if all goes well and they are not needed for that purpose, to land the spacecraft gently on terra firma at the end of the mission.
The entire test is expected to last for only 1.5 minutes. SpaceX's Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of mission assurance, joked at a press conference on Friday that if a viewer waits to hear the sound of the engines firing, the test will already be over.
The engines will fire for 6 seconds, followed by a 20 second coast phase as the Dragon capsule rises to about 5,000 feet altitude. It will then descend under parachutes to land in the Atlantic Ocean about one mile offshore. It will be retrieved and returned to SpaceX's McGregor, TX facility for study. An instrumented dummy will be aboard to measure g forces and other parameters that an astronaut would experience. When asked if the dummy had a name, Koenigsmann quickly replied "yes" on Friday, and said it was Buster. The company has since backed away from that name, however, since it is associated with the TV program MythBusters. Saying there will be a dummy aboard, but his name is not Buster, the company lightheartedly says on its website that "Buster the Dummy already works for a great show you may have heard of called MythBusters. Our dummy prefers to remain anonymous for the time being."
Koenigsmann urged patience, noting the multi-hour launch window for such a brief test. He said they would go when they were ready to go. The only weather constraint is onshore winds.
He and NASA's Jon Cowart both stressed that the test will be valuable no matter the result since the whole point is that it is a development flight. An in-flight abort test using the same capsule launched by a Falcon 9 rocket is planned later this year. The date will not be set until the results of this test are known. That launch will be from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, Koenigsmann said.
SpaceX posted a fact sheet yesterday entitled "5 Things To Know About SpaceX's Pad Abort Test."
Wednesday's test will be covered by NASA TV (and possibly on SpaceX's website as well).
Events of Interest