SpaceX Crew Dragon Finishes Launch Preparations For Upcoming Mission

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and SpaceX are getting ready to launch NASA's first operational crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS) next week. This mission will fly four astronauts to the orbiting body as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) responsible for resuming manned spaceflights from American soil. It will use SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft – an iteration of the company's Cargo Dragon developed under another NASA program. The spacecraft reached NASA's facilities in Florida yesterday revealed the agency through a blog post today, and it will be joined by its crew on Sunday.

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Even as NASA and SpaceX prepare for the Crew Dragon's next mission, dubbed as Crew-1, the pair should also be evaluating data from another SpaceX launch that took place yesterday. This launch put the Space Force's fourth third-generation Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite into orbit, and it came after the GPS mission encountered an engine anomaly during its launch attempt in October.

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The anomaly came as the Falcon 9 rocket responsible for the mission witnessed its Merlin 1D engines starting earlier than scheduled. As a result, the rocket's autonomous computers aborted the launch seconds before lift-off and SpaceX started to conduct its investigations for determining the reason behind the problem.

What the company discovered didn't only affect the GPS launch but two other missions as well - both of which were for NASA. One of these was the Crew-1 launch and the other was the launch of NASA and ESA's (European Space Agency) Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich ocean-monitoring satellite.

During the agency's press briefing for the Crew-1 launch last month, which fully outlined the scope of the problem and SpaceX's fix,  NASA's CCP manager Mr. Steve Stich also indicated that the agency would like the GPS mission to fly first so that it could review data from the Falcon 9 and effectively ensure that the four astronauts would be safe during their ascent.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon arrived at NASA's Kennedy Space Center from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station yesterday. Image: SpaceX

The variant of the Crew Dragon responsible for the Crew-1 mission will feature several upgrades over the capsule that flew astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the ISS earlier this year. Their flight marked the first time astronauts took to the skies from U.S. soil after NASA's Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, and during the mission, the pair evaluated Crew Dragon's performance.

Some of the changes that the Crew-1 spacecraft will feature include upgraded solar panels and a barometric pressure detection system and reinforced tension ties for its heatshield. The tension ties were upgraded after SpaceX discovered unforeseen damage to the area during Bob and Doug's return from the ISS in August. In what the company described as a 'safe event', the heatshield around the ties eroded more than SpaceX would have preferred, and as a result, the company upgraded the Crew Dragon's design for future missions.

SpaceX's flights to the ISS come as the company continues to be the sole American company capable of launching both crew and cargo to the orbiting body. NASA's other CCP contestants, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) are yet to demonstrate operational capability for such missions. Boeing's Starliner, another capsule-like design, is expected to undertake an uncrewed flight in either December this year or in January 2021, company officials have stated, after its first test flight failed to dock with the ISS. SNC's Dream Chaser spaceplane, which resembles the Space Shuttle is expected to conduct a demonstration flight in mid-2021.

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