Astronauts Check Out Dragon Spacecraft Accommodations
Test drives aren't just for cars. Recently, NASA astronauts began getting a close feel with the spacecraft they may fly aboard in the future. They tried out the positioning of displays and generally assessed whether they would be comfortable inside of the vehicle for hours at a time.
They never got off the lot, though. Instead, the team of astronauts and industry experts climbed inside a test version of the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Dragon capsule, a spacecraft intended to carry astronauts to the International Space Station or other low Earth orbit destinations.
SpaceX's spacecraft currently is contracted to fly 12 cargo-only missions to the space station under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services Contract. In 2010, Dragon became the first commercially developed spacecraft to return from Earth orbit during a demonstration flight for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program. And, in 2011, the agency's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) signed a funded Space Act Agreement with the company to enhance Dragon's capabilities to include the transportation of humans.
"There are very important systems that need to be in place before you can put humans in a spacecraft," said Jon Cowart, NASA's partner manager for SpaceX. "You've got to have the seats and the displays, of course. But you also have to have air circulation, and air conditioning and heating. So, under CCP's second round of development we are working on the layout of the Dragon interior and developing concepts and some hardware for the interior’s atmosphere control."
As part of the Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) agreement, the company invited NASA into its plant in Hawthorne, Calif., to check out a prototype of the crew capsule, which is equipped with seats, lighting, environmental controls, life support systems, displays, cargo racks, mock control panels and other interior systems.
During the day-long review, Rex Walheim, Tony Antonelli, Lee Archambault and Tim Kopra, all space shuttle veterans, participated in what are called human factor type assessments. That included entering and exiting Dragon under normal and emergency scenarios. They also performed reach and visibility evaluations.
Dustin Gohmert, a NASA crew survival engineering team lead, Laura Crabtree, a SpaceX mission operations engineer, and Brenda Hernandez, a SpaceX thermal engineer, also participated in the assessments.
"This milestone demonstrated that the design of the crew cabin supports critical nominal and off-nominal tasks, and provided an opportunity to gain valuable feedback from both NASA astronauts and industry experts," said SpaceX Commercial Crew Development Manager Garrett Reisman.
Although Dragon reminds people of NASA's Apollo-era capsules, it is much larger, designed to carry up to seven crew members instead of three. Cowart credits the roominess to the outer shell of Dragon being less steep than its Apollo predecessor.
"With all seven crew members in their seats, Dragon has sufficient interior space for three other people to stand and assist the crew with their launch preparations," said Reisman.
SpaceX said the spacecraft's seats are mounted to strong, yet lightweight, supporting structures that are attached to the pressure vessel walls. Each seat has a liner that could be custom-fitted for an individual crew member and could support an adult weighing up to 250 pounds and measuring 6-feet, 5-inches tall.
"We already know that the Dragon spacecraft can go into orbit and return safely," Cowart said. "So, what we need to do is nurture SpaceX's ability to put humans on board and return them safely as well."
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center