Years of design, development, and testing have culminated in NASA officially certifying the first commercial spacecraft system in history capable of transporting humans to and from the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.
NASA completed the signing of the Human Rating Certification Plan Tuesday for SpaceX’s crew transportation system after a thorough Flight Readiness Review ahead the agency’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission with astronauts to the space station.
“I’m extremely proud to say we are returning regular human spaceflight launches to American soil on an American rocket and spacecraft,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “This certification milestone is an incredible achievement from NASA and SpaceX that highlights the progress we can make working together with commercial industry.”
The Crew Dragon, including the Falcon 9 rocket and associated ground systems, is the first new, crew spacecraft to be NASA-certified for regular flights with astronauts since the space shuttle nearly 40 years ago. Several critical events paved the way for this achievement, including grounds tests, simulations, uncrewed flight tests and NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 test flight with astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley earlier this year.
“Today’s signing is about the people across NASA, SpaceX and other groups that came together to complete an unbelievable amount of hard work to accomplish this task,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operation Mission Directorate. “Certification moves us from the design and test phase into the crew rotation phase of our work, but we will not stop making sure every flight, including NASA’s Space Crew-1 mission, will be approached with the same rigor we have put into making this the best system it can be for our astronauts.”
The launch of the Demo-2 mission on May 30, 2020, marked the first time astronauts flew aboard the American rocket and spacecraft from the U.S. to the space station, and extensive analysis of the test flight data followed the safe return of Behnken and Hurley on Aug. 2.
Prior to Demo-2, NASA and SpaceX completed several demonstration flights to prove the system was ready to fly astronauts. In 2015, teams completed a Crew Dragon pad abort test during which the spacecraft demonstrated the ability to escape the launch pad in the event of an emergency prior to liftoff.
In March 2019, NASA and SpaceX took another major step toward restoring America’s human spaceflight capability when Crew Dragon returned safely to Earth after spending five days docked to the space station for NASA’s SpaceX Demo-1 mission. The test flight was the first launch, docking and return of the commercially built and operated American spacecraft.
In January 2020, NASA and SpaceX completed a launch escape demonstration of the Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket. During the test, SpaceX configured Crew Dragon to intentionally trigger a launch escape prior to 1 minute and 30 seconds into flight to demonstrate Crew Dragon’s capability to safely carry the astronauts to safety in the unlikely event of an in-flight emergency.
“Thank you to NASA for their continued support of SpaceX and partnership in achieving this goal,” said SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk. “I could not be more proud of everyone at SpaceX and all of our suppliers who worked incredibly hard to develop, test, and fly the first commercial human spaceflight system in history to be certified by NASA. This is a great honor that inspires confidence in our endeavor to return to the Moon, travel to Mars, and ultimately help humanity become multi-planetary.”
Dozens of tests of the spacecraft’s parachute system were successfully completed, which began in 2016 and wrapped up this year. Several key events have occurred since 2018, including the completion of electromagnetic interference chamber testing on Crew Dragon at the SpaceX factory in Hawthorne, California, and acoustic chamber testing on the spacecraft at the NASA’s Plum Brook Station test facility at Glenn Research Center in Ohio. Hundreds of tests have been performed on the spacecraft’s eight SuperDraco abort engines, which would provide astronauts an escape from the rocket in the unlikely event of an emergency at liftoff.
NASA and SpaceX also coordinated with the U.S. Air Force and the Department of Defense (DoD) to conduct crew rescue training. The DoD Human Space Flight Support Office Rescue Division is prepared to deploy at a moment’s notice to quickly and safely rescue astronauts in the unlikely event of an emergency during ascent or splashdown.
“NASA’s partnership with American private industry is changing the arc of human spaceflight history by opening access to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station to more people, more science and more commercial opportunities,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA. “We are truly in the beginning of a new era of human spaceflight.”
NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission will be the first flight to use the certified SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and will fly NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi, on a six-month mission to and from the space station. Crew Dragon is targeting launch on a Falcon 9 on Saturday, Nov. 14, from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is working with the American aerospace industry as companies develop and operate a new generation of spacecraft and launch systems capable of carrying crews to low-Earth orbit. With NASA certification of the SpaceX crew transportation system complete, the agency can proceed with regularly flying astronauts to the space station, ending sole reliance on Russia for access. Commercial transportation to and from the orbiting laboratory will provide additional research time and broader opportunities for discovery.
For more than 20 years, humans have continuously lived and worked aboard the International Space Station, advancing scientific knowledge and demonstrating new technologies that enable us to prepare for human exploration to the Moon and Mars.