Crew Dragon Demo-2: Flight Director explains the Flight Operations


For the first time in almost nine years, Humans are going to launch from the American Soil. It was in July 2011, when STS-135, the last shuttle (Atlantis) mission launched. Even before 2011, NASA was working with commercial companies to get a new human spacecraft. In 2014, Boeing and SpaceX were selected for commercial crew spacecraft development. A set of astronauts started assisting these companies for the design, development and testing of the new generation human space vehicle. Crew Dragon Demo-2 will be the first crewed spaceflight of this Commercial Crew program of NASA.

The two astronauts, Douglas G. Hurley and Robert L. Behnken will crew the Crew Dragon on this spaceflight. Behnken has flown on the shuttle twice, has spacewalk experience and worked as Airforce Flight Test Engineer with a doctorate in Mechanical Engineering. Doug is an expert pilot with more than 5500 flight hours on more than 25 aircraft. He has also piloted two shuttle missions one being the final Atlantis STS-135.

Astronauts Douglas G. Hurley and Robert L. Behnken for Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission
Astronauts Douglas G. Hurley and Robert L. Behnken

While the astronauts have gotten a lot of coverage and press interviews, there are many personnel working behind the scenes. In a recent Houston, We have a Podcast, Podcast series, NASA’s Lead Flight Director for the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission, Zebulon Scoville, gave an interview. Zebulon Scoville, also known as Zeb, started in the EVA operations team and was also the lead EVA officer for astronaut Bob’s first flight on STS-123. He has a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Background from Stanford University.

Zebulon talks about his early experiences with NASA and recent experience of collaborating with SpaceX for commercial crew program. He also explains the full in-flight operations which will take place once the Crew Dragon is launched by the Falcon-9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center. A summary of the same is as follows (not exhaustive):

  • Verify
    • Did everything survive and work throughout the launch?
    • If the navigation system is established with a good lock on the GPS?
    • The communication pathway via TDRSS satellites is established?

While the Crew Dragon is autonomous, they will be testing the manual flight of the vehicle.

  • Manual Testing
    • The crew is going to take manual control in the far-field of ISS.
    • They’ll be able to control the roll, the pitch and the yaw through their touchscreen displays.
    • They can do finite thruster input through those inputs to be able to get a clean rotational axis.
    • They might manoeuvre to realign the spacecraft with the local vertical, local horizontal reference frame.
  • Sleep for the Crew
    • The crew dragon can dock with Space Station within 6 hours, but this time we are looking for about 19 hours. So the astronauts will have time to sleep.
    • The crew can put some window shades on the cabin and some earbuds. The crew dragon can provide some white noise which lets them go to sleep.
    • While the crew sleeps (ideally for eight hours) the Dragon and crew on the ground will continue to monitor all the parameters. They’ll try their best not to have any thruster burns while they sleep, as they make a sound.
  • Waking up and Operations
    • Will the crew wake up with music? (Shuttle Tradition) We will need to watch.
    • Have a meal and get vehicle status.
    • Wear there suits on again, as they get closer to ISS.
  • Docking
    • There are a number of intricate procedures which will lead upto docking.
    • Another manual testing will be done around 170-220 meters from the space station.
  • Welcoming Ceremony
    • The hatch will open, and the ISS crew will come and meet the Demo-2 crew.
  • Onboard Operations
    • There are many tests to be performed while crew dragon is docked with ISS and is essentially a module of the space station.
    • Establish excellent communication from Dragon down through the U.S. segment, through the Russian segment to Soyuz.
    • Russian crew will be in Soyuz with a crew in Dragon and they’ll make sure that audio signal is strong.
    • “That’s important if there was an emergency on ISS. Both crew members will go back to their own respective vehicles and then prepare for responding to the emergency.”
    • Check good data connection on Crew Dragon from the space station using space station laptops and I-pads.
    • They may have some ISS crew come over for a sleepover to check Crew Dragon capabilities. (It is designed for more than two humans)

So there are a series of tests and a lot of exciting science and technology set up for the next few days. The launch is scheduled at 20:33:33 UTC tonight (27th May 2020). Do tune into NASA TV or many other channels on YouTube which will be broadcasting this event live.

UPDATE: The launch was scrubbed due to Weather red flag. The next launch attempt will be at 3:22 p.m. EDT on Saturday, May 30 (12:52 a.m. IST Sunday, May 31), from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Hope we will be able to see the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission launch soon.

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