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article imageSpaceX taking its biggest step toward flying people into space

By Karen Graham     Mar 1, 2019 in Science
Early Saturday morning, SpaceX will launch its uncrewed Crew Dragon space capsule on a demonstration flight to the International Space Station - a giant step toward NASA's goal of sending its own crewed spacecraft to the ISS and beyond.
Those wanting to view the launch on the East Coast will either need to get up very early on Saturday - The launch will take place at 2:49 a.m. EST on March 2, from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Tomorrow's flight is a demonstration of the Crew Dragon space capsule under normal launch conditions. The only thing missing will be the astronauts. Another thing to look for, and this is important, is the ability of the capsule to dock automatically with the ISS, according to Quartz.
“We instrumented the crap out of this vehicle,” NASA’s commercial crew program manager Kathy Lueders said on Feb. 28. Besides the sensors attached to Ripley, the craft is covered with pressure, sound, vibration, temperature, and radiation monitors. NASA will also take advantage of the flight to bring up some 400 lb of hardware and supplies for the ISS crew, and return a broken space-suit component back down to Earth for further investigation.
Concerns over flight computers
SpaceX’s cargo spacecraft are usually grappled into the station by astronauts operating a robotic arm, but on Sunday, after reaching the ISS, Crew Dragon will become the first to automatically park at ISS’ new International Docking Adapter, installed in 2016.
Russia's space agency is a part-owner of the ISS, and last week, they voiced their concerns over the flight computers on the SpaceX Crew Dragon. Most spacecraft have two separate computer systems aboard to ensure redundancy - but SpaceX relies on software to keep its single computer running.
To gain Russian approval, ISS managers had to map out the docking features for the attempt on Sunday, including a number of pauses and retreats. They also agreed to new protocols that require the ISS crew to seal off sections of the station and be prepared to abandon it in a Soyuz escape craft in the worst-case scenario.
There will be no humans aboard the Crew Dragon when it launches tomorrow. Instead, it will carry a mannequin named Ripley—in honor of Ellen Ripley, the hero of the Alien films played by Sigourney Weaver. SpaceX's Ripley will be covered in sensors to measure how the flight will affect future human passengers.
The capsule itself is also packed with sensors that will be monitoring the temperature internally as well as other issues that NASA is still concerned over, like the helium bottle used by the Falcon 9 rocket’s propulsion system. Called a composite over-wrapped pressure vessel or COPV, it was the culprit when a SpaceX rocket caught fire and was destroyed during an engine test in 2015.
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s top human spaceflight official, said last week that NASA will evaluate all the data, but warned that “we’re maybe going to re-design some of these things.”
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