Inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon that Inspiration4 will fly

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HThis is how you fly a SpaceX Crew dragon spaceship: get on board; buckle up; close the hatch; fly in space. the Dragon takes care of everything, so relax and enjoy the ride – unless, of course, something goes wrong, and in space, something can always go wrong.

So here’s how to prepare for this possibility: spend 60-hour months a week in classrooms and simulators; master hundreds of pages of technical specifications and procedures; learn the operation of dozens of systems and subsystems aboard the spacecraft; train for emergencies ranging from communication failures to navigation failures to fires on board; and, not for nothing, spend some time in a centrifuge and an altitude chamber, practicing for the g-forces you are going to have to endure and the possibility of depressurization.

“There are 60 procedures north that range from normal emergency to emergency,” said Jared Isaacman, CEO of Shift4 Payments, an online payment service, which will commission the Inspiration4 mission in September, spending three days in orbit with three other civilian astronauts. . “In a multi-day mission, there is a lot of time for a lot to go wrong. (TIME Studios is producing a documentary series on the Inspiration4 mission.)

Train for these contingencies aboard a Dragon requires a whole new kind of training, because in every way, the new ship is not your father’s spaceship. NASA’s older Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules were designed for an airplane cockpit. Their tin dashboards were dotted with hundreds of analog switches, dials, lights and gauges. Their simple on-board computers were controlled by a mechanical keyboard. The commander piloted these ships the same way you would fly an airplane – with a joystick determining speed, attitude, altitude, and direction.

the dragon the designers swept it all away, replacing everything, including the joystick, with three large touchscreens facing four seats side by side. Each screen is capable of calling up to 10 sets of displays, allowing the crew to focus on a particular set of systems: guidance, environment, electricity, etc.

“You have a global systems page on the screen, and then you can also explore individual pages,” says Doug Hurley, the commander of the first manned SpaceX mission, which launched in May 2020. “There are a total of 25 to 30 individual pages, and SpaceX may have added some since my flight. With any airplane or spacecraft, you always repeat because it makes sense and it’s easy and will help the crew.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft’s seats are reconfigurable, allowing it to carry up to seven people, although four are typical for a NASA mission. Three large touch screens replace the traditional dashboard.

Courtesy of SpaceX

Ideally, the spacecraft helps the astronauts so much that they have little to do with the spacecraft operating entirely autonomously. “And if automation doesn’t fix a problem, then the ground is your next layer of defense,” says Hurley, referring to SpaceX ground controllers that can troubleshoot and issue commands to the spacecraft from the comfort of control. mission. Only if the Dragon does not take care of itself and the ground personnel cannot fix the problem if the astronauts take over.

This is also the case when it comes to the most critical aspect of commanding the spacecraft – piloting it. the Dragon has a full-time autopilot program, requiring no astronaut intervention. On Hurley’s flight, he took over in the final stages of the spacecraft’s approach to the International Space Station, steering the ship in all axes, flying above, below, and to the left and right of the station. But the point of this exercise was simply to prove that manual systems worked.

“In space, you have to trust and verify,” Hurley says. “But there are no plans to do more manual flights, unless it is necessary due to some type of systems failure scenario.”

These failures occur, and learning to fly the Dragon by hand may take a while. Removing the joystick and replacing it with buttons on a touchscreen can make a spaceship more stylish, but it also eliminates the most important physical connection a pilot has to their vehicle. Pilots using a stick never have to look at it as they operate by touch, but that’s impossible with a touchscreen that doesn’t offer anything in terms of tactile response. “When you use soft keys on a touchscreen, the feel is totally different and a lot of muscle memory is lost,” says Isaacman, who is a licensed jet pilot and knows a thing or two about the stick and the rudder. skills. “There’s that delay when you look at the screen and enter a command before it’s executed, versus something instantaneous when you move the stick.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft before being mated to its Falcon 9 rocket (left);  the second stage of the Falcon is disposable, and the first stage returns to Earth, landing on a barge, to be refitted and reused.

the Crew dragon spacecraft before being coupled to its Falcon 9 rocket (left); the second stage of the Falcon is disposable, and the first stage returns to Earth, landing on a barge, to be refitted and reused.

Courtesy of SpaceX / NASA

And then there are the types of emergencies that not only require human intervention on site, but require it to be performed immediately and perfectly. Fires can and do break out in spacecraft; The crew of the Russian Mir space station had to fight a fire in 1997 when a fuel canister ignited. The biggest risk on board Dragon is a fire caused by overheating the battery, and there are plenty of batteries on board the ship, not just those in the spacecraft, but those that power the tablets, cameras, and smartphones that the crew members will be carrying. .

There is also the risk of the spacecraft depressurizing, forcing the crew to search for the breach, try to plug it and put on their suits at the same time. A launch emergency can also occur – if, for example, the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that carries the ship into space fails to separate from the Dragon and the captain must manually execute the separation maneuver. the dragon The guidance system is also prone to failures, which can cause the ship’s solar panels to misalign with the sun and require human intervention to fix problems.

Finally, there are the overall risks raised by the sheer number of days the Inspiration4 crew will spend in orbit. Crews heading to the space station fly there directly and are usually on board about a day after launch. The Inspiration4 crew will be in orbit for three days, flying independently, without the security provided by the giant station – the longest American space an American crew has been in the air in a vehicle other than the station. since the last shuttle stopped in 2011. Every day spent on their own is another day in which something can go wrong.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket a few days before the Crew-1 mission launches in November 2020.

the Crew dragon spacecraft and the Falcon 9 rocket a few days before the launch of the Crew-1 mission in November 2020.

Courtesy of SpaceX

Ideally, nothing goes wrong on any given mission – and on SpaceX’s three crewed flights. Crew dragon has flown so far, the ideal has been the real. But space remains, always and always, a dangerous place to go. This is for the Dragon designers to remove risk – and even labor – from the equation. It’s up to the crew to prepare if this equation doesn’t hold up.

“I don’t know if there’s ever been a manned space flight mission that didn’t have an anomaly,” Isaacman says. “People tell us we’re making good progress. I think we’ve definitely gotten to the point where we’re ready and it will be a mission well executed.

Learn more about the Inspiration4 mission:

Write to Jeffrey Kluger at [email protected]


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