In the middle of SpaceX’s rocket factory is a three-story glass building. On the top floor, all laid out on tables, is the Dragon 2 Crew Capsule, minus the capsule. Every component of the spacecraft that will take astronauts to the ISS is laid out and connected together, just as they will be when attached to Dragon’s pressure vessel.
This allows engineers to run simulations on Dragon 2’s hardware while having direct access to the parts. They can attach sensors to any component and check its heat output, voltage, motion, or any characteristic while the part performs like it would in flight.
“It may not sound exciting, 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,” said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of mission assurance, according to a NASA blog last week.
NASA’s post indicates that Dragon 2 is well on its way to finishing its next CCiCap Milestone, the Dragon Primary Structure Qualification – Hatch Open Test. You may have noticed when Dragon 2 was unveiled that it did not have a top hatch. There is an overhead display connected to a round metal cap in D2’s ceiling where a hatch belongs. When docking with the ISS, D2’s nose cone will open, and the craft will automatically attach using the new International Docking Adapter. Along with testing the hatch, astronauts will use it to access the ISS. The milestone will test the rest of the vehicle’s primary structure under flight-like stresses. The milestone is worth $30 Million.
Next for D2 will be the Delta Crew Vehicle Critical Design Review. SpaceX will hold a big meeting at its headquarters. The final plan and documentation for the D2’s design and operation will be presented to NASA for review. NASA will decide if SpaceX’s design is mature enough to go into full-scale production. The agreement calls for SpaceX to present a draft of its flight crew procedures. This may include its space suit design for D2 crews. The milestone is worth $40 million.
Finally comes the one we’ve been waiting for: The In-Flight Abort Test. This will test the abort system that will tear D2 away from the tip of its rocket at over a thousand miles an hour and splash astronauts safely in the ocean in the event of a rocket failure. For the test, Dragon 2 will launch from the Cape atop a Falcon rocket with 3 engines instead of 9. This one-of-a-kind rocket was built as a test vehicle for vertical landing, but the ocean barge landing tests have gone so well it was not needed. The vehicle is being repurposed for the in-flight abort test.
Above is what is what we know for sure about Dragon 2’s next steps. Most of the CCiCAP agreement between SpaceX and NASA is blacked out. Rumors abound about an orbital test flight from people who claim to have seen the top secret parts of the CCiCAP agreement. There is a part of the agreement that is only the words “Flight to ISS with non-NASA Crew” among pages of blacked out print. Why the secrecy you ask? Alien cover up for NASA? Disguising insane price gouging like ULA? Probably not. My best guess is that SpaceX’s plans for D2 are tied into its Mars architecture. SpaceX knows that any plans it makes public on the road to Mars will immediately be equaled or bested by the children in Congress. If it’s tit for tat every step of the way, SpaceX will never sell NASA a Mars mission. The only hope is to leapfrog NASA’s Mars efforts and come out so far ahead that they can’t possibly catch up and must buy from SpaceX. Secrecy is paramount to this goal. Prepare for something Epic.
CCiCAP Agreement and Amendments:
Ashlee Vance’s SpaceX Book (Read It!):