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SpaceX plans a test flight of its astronaut capsule next week — but without astronauts

SpaceX's main facility along Crenshaw Boulevard in Hawthorne, Calif. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

NASA officials said Friday that they have reviewed test results and analysis of SpaceX’s astronaut transport capsule and will move ahead with the spacecraft’s first crewless test flight, set for launch next week.

The flight will be a dry run of sorts for a later mission that will take two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. That test flight is set for July.

The only remaining issue ahead of next week’s flight is to get sign-off from Russia, which raised concerns about how SpaceX capsule’s software will operate as it approaches the space station. The Russian space agency mentioned concerns about how a potential abort scenario would work, William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA, said during a news conference Friday.

Russia has an astronaut on board the space station and has “significant investment” in it, said Kirk Shireman, manager of the International Space Station program.

“We’re going to continue to work with them on those concerns,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll be successful in getting their concurrence.”

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Hawthorne-based SpaceX and aerospace giant Boeing Co. each was awarded a NASA contract in 2014 to develop separate capsules that would transport agency astronauts to the space station. Since the space shuttle program ended in 2011, the U.S. has relied on Russia to take NASA astronauts to the space station. Boeing’s uncrewed test flight is set for April, followed by a crewed test in August.

SpaceX has “tested every single component” of the Crew Dragon capsule, as well as 17 parachute tests of the system that will allow the capsule to land safely in the ocean back on Earth, said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX.

“There has been a lot of work in the past two, three, four, five years that basically culminate in this particular flight,” he said.

A dummy outfitted in a SpaceX-designed spacesuit will be riding in the capsule during next week’s mission to collect data, Koenigsmann said.

Ahead of the crewed flight set for this summer, SpaceX and NASA are still working through issues such as testing of the capsule’s parachutes, as well as better understanding the behavior of the composite overwrapped pressure vessels in the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage.

In 2016, a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on a launch pad while propellant was being loaded into the vehicle, and a company-led investigation found that “buckles” had developed in the inner lining of one of these vessels. Super-chilled liquid oxygen gathered in those buckles, and “breaking fibers or friction” was noted as a potential way to ignite the oxygen in the carbon overwrap.

The capsule’s uncrewed test flight is set for March 2 at 2:48 a.m. Eastern time from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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© 2019 the Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.