On Monday, the buzz of machinery echoed through SpaceX’s Hawthorne-based manufacturing facility as SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell introduced a quartet of astronauts, each decked out in NASA blues. Behind them, tucked inside a clean room, was their ticket to low-Earth orbit: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, still naked without its stark white outer shell.
So far, every SpaceX Dragon capsule has only carried cargo to and from the International Space Station. But that will change when NASA’s Commercial Crew program launches its astronauts—the first to leave from US soil since 2011. The first Crew Dragon is set to take off in November as part of an uncrewed flight test, and if all goes according to plan, a crew of two astronauts—Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken—will launch to the ISS for a two-week stay in April 2019. The next team, Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins, will take off some time after that.
Now that the first two crews have been announced, Behnken and Hurley—both veteran shuttle pilots who have been working on the project since 2015—will begin training on the vehicle itself. Or a least a simulacrum of it: Part of that training will happen in a two-seater cockpit simulator, located just above the clean room.
SpaceX’s new cockpit design will take more onboarding than you think. NASA’s astronauts are used to the space shuttle’s vast array of more than 1,000 buttons and switches, but the crew will control the Dragon with the help of just three touch screen control panels and two rows of buttons. Touch screens in space, you say? Yes, really: The astronauts’ new spacesuits, a one-piece design that’s more wetsuit than pumpkin suit, also comes with conductive leather gloves that will allow them to control the screens.
The displays will both provide the crew with orbital flight tracking and give them control over the craft. Though the vehicle is designed to be autonomous, crews will have the ability to manually fly the Dragon and fire thrusters for minor course corrections. After astronauts select commands on the touch screen, the analog buttons, shielded by a clear covering, will execute them. The buttons are also used to handle emergencies: One button under the far left panel extinguishes a fire, while a large pull-and-twist handle, located under the center screen and marked “EJECT,” arms the vehicle’s launch escape system.
Learning the control panel is just the beginning. While Dragon will have both autonomous systems and a ground crew as backup, its first crews will still have to be prepared for any scenario. That’s where SpaceX’s full-scale simulator comes into play. The replica located upstairs in the astronaut training area at the Hawthorne facility comes outfitted with seats, control panels, flight software, and life-support systems, allowing SpaceX crew trainers to put the astronauts through increasingly complex failures—who knows, maybe even their own version of the Kobayashi Maru.
Outside the cavernous rocket-building warehouse, SpaceX is working on another hallmark of its strategy: reusing more of its rocket’s components. In particular, the payload fairing, which is also known as the nose cone. Tethered to a dock in the Port of Los Angeles, and nestled among the many freighters and fishing vessels resides one of the more recent additions to SpaceX’s fleet: a boat named Mr. Steven. SpaceX aims to use the vessel to recover the fairings, which historically have been a one-use component, as they navigate themselves back to Earth after separating from the rocket.
Each fairing—a $6 million piece of hardware—accounts for one tenth of the price of the entire Falcon 9 rocket, and SpaceX can save a bundle if it can scoop up the fairing before it lands in the ocean. Here’s where the aerospace company’s fleet of recovery vessels comes into play. Essentially a mobile catcher’s mitt, Mr. Steven is outfitted with a yellow net that spans nearly 40,000 square feet. So far, Mr. Steven’s recovery attempts have been unsuccessful, but on Monday, SpaceX conducted tests that will hopefully allow engineers better understand the properties of Mr. Steven’s net.
Visible in the net was one of the fairing’s two halves, attached to a crane that repeatedly lifted and lowered it to help engineers understand how the net behaves while loaded down. SpaceX wouldn’t want to catch a fairing, only to have it crash through the net and onto the ship’s deck.
Mr. Steven’s next trip out to sea will be in late September as SpaceX prepares to launch the Argentinian Earth-observing satellite SAO-COM-1A. There’s a lot riding on this launch: It will mark the company’s first attempted landing on the west coast; all of its previous landings out of Vandenberg have touched down on one of the company’s drone ships. If SpaceX manages to recapture both the rocket booster and the fairing, it’ll save an estimated $37 million.
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