SpaceX, NASA Talk About Safety Philosophy & 17,100 Mph Photo Plan

Ramish Zafar
SpaceX Dragon 2 vehicle under the DM-2 mission approaches the International Space Station (ISS) on May 31st, 2020. (Image Credit: NASA)

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) will photograph the International Space Station (ISS) while traveling at 17,100 miles per hour around the Earth. This endeavor is part of the duo's Crew-2 mission to the space station, which will over once it returns to Earth in early November after its astronauts have spent months in space.

Before Crew-2 returns though, the Crew-3 mission will launch from Florida this Saturday and details of the upcoming launch were shared by NASA and SpaceX officials late yesterday during a teleconference announcing the completion of the Crew-3 flight readiness review (FRR).

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Details of the photography mission, which will prove crucial in NASA's decision-making process to assess the ISS's mission duration, were revealed by the agency's manager for the multi-billion dollar Commercial Crew Program (CCP). The ISS has been in orbit for roughly two decades, and the Dragon is the only American spacecraft capable of flights to the ISS so far.

During the teleconference, Mr. Stitch outlined that:

Also on Crew-2 return for the first time well have the fly around. So we'll do a fly-around of the ISS, should the trajectory allow for that. And then we'll be able to photograph the parts of the space station that we have not photographed before. So that's a new capability of the vehicle that we'll have on the Crew-2 and Crew-3 as well.

Additionally, SpaceX and NASA shared their approach to ensure that the Crew Dragon remains in top shape for its flights. NASA's Stitch explained a software upgrade on Crew-3, which will enhance the spacecraft's ability to control itself if its flight control software fails.

This capability is called Vehicle REO, and according to Mr. Stich, it will:

You know one of our teams has continued to learn and we are learning a lot every time we fly. We will have on Crew-3 a new capability. In the event of a failure case, we put some software in for entry. If the flight computer were to fail, we have some software in something called a Vehicle REO that would takeover and could keep the footprint safe for landing.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon, which flew the private Inspiration4 to an altitude higher than NASA astronauts fly as part of their missions, featured a cupola window at its top or forward side instead of a docking model. Image: SpaceX

In response to a question from the Washington Post, SpaceX's vice president of mission assurance William Gerstenmaier explained that reusability helps his company make its rockets and spacecraft safer. According to him, reusability allows SpaceX to discover design improvements in its equipment, which then spurs the company into assessing the fundamentals of a fault.

The SpaceX executive outlined that:

I think there's also a tremendous advantage when we get the hardware back to take a look at it. The fact that we got Inpiration4 back and then we could disassemble essentially the floor and then take a look and actually understand where the corrosion occurred on that vehicle. That gave us tremendous insight into what we need to look for on Crew-2, on orbit. So that was important.

Then every time we fly a Falcon and we get a Falcon back, we get a chance to look at that data, and I think that actually helps make it safer. You know as we're starting to fly some 11th flight boosters, they have a lot of flight time on them. Those are kind of paving the way and we can start to see which systems maybe are a little weaker than other systems and then we can go and make changes and actually improve those. So by continuing to look at the hardware, look at the systems, we get back. In continuing to fly, we can continue to keep learning and keep challenging each other to get better.

Like in the case of this tube we found that wasn't glued properly. We didn't stop there. We said what other interfaces on this vehicle could have a similar glued interface that might be the problem. So we went back and we looked at other areas on the vehicle and reviewed all of the designs and all the qualifications for each and every one of those components, beyond the flight support system to make sure that we didn't have another similar problem like that glued joint. So that's the thing we challenge ourselves is. Don't just focus on the immediate problem and just fix that problem. Look beyond that problem, and how could there be an underlying root cause or fundamental issue that has broader implications that can help us all fly safe.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon rendered while entering the Earth's atmosphere. Image: SpaceX/YouTube

The Dragon's software update will allow it to use another flight computer to keep its landing commands intact if its primary flight computer, which consists of three separate computers, fails during entry due to a common cause, explained the officials.

SpaceX has upgraded the Dragon several times since it commenced astronaut missions last year, with some of the changes including new solar panels and other hardware upgrades. The Crew-3 vehicle will be a brand new Dragon spacecraft, and the company also conducts cargo missions to the ISS through a crew variant of the spacecraft.

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