Engineers at the Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration technologies Corporation (SpaceX) rejoiced recently, when the Dragon space capsule they are developing passed a critical safety review test. Safety specialists and engineers from both NASA and SpaceX conducted the assessment throughout October.
SpaceX is currently working within a NASA Commercial Crew Program (CCP) Space Act Agreement to develop the Dragon spacecraft and the Falcon 9 medium-lift delivery system for resupplying the International Space Station (ISS).
The Dragon has already proven its worth by successfully docking to the space lab, but SpaceX wants to have the capsule certified for human spaceflight as well. This means that the vehicle may soon be used to ferry NASA astronauts to the orbital outpost.
However, before the space agency sends any of its astronauts to space on a private spacecraft, drastic safety and security requirements need to met. This was the very purpose of the October review.
At this point, only the unmanned version of Dragon is operational. Officials at SpaceX, a company created by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, say that the manned version of the spacecraft will enter service sometime beyond 2016.
“The milestone is not the end of the safety discussion, it's really the beginning. Because we've been doing this for so long, we all have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't and how safety processes can be strengthened to increase our confidence in the system,” Jon Cowart says.
The expert holds an appointment as the deputy manager of the NASA CCP Partnership Integration Team. He and his group traveled to SpaceX headquarters for two days and grilled engineers in charge of the project on the safety technologies and measures the spacecraft/rocket combo includes.
“We greatly appreciate NASA’s support and feedback throughout this process. Together we are taking all the necessary steps to make Dragon the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever flown,” says former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, who is now the SpaceX commercial crew project manager.
The next important milestone in this project is a test of the Launch Abort System (LAS) on the manned Dragon capsule, which is scheduled to occur in 2014 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), in Florida. This system ejects Dragon from the Falcon 9 rocket in case of an emergency.