If you’re fascinated by the idea of humans traveling through space and curious about how that all works, you’ve come to the right place.
“Houston We Have a Podcast” is the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center from Houston, Texas, home for NASA’s astronauts and Mission Control Center. Listen to the brightest minds of America’s space agency – astronauts, engineers, scientists and program leaders – discuss exciting topics in engineering, science and technology, sharing their personal stories and expertise on every aspect of human spaceflight. Learn more about how the work being done will help send humans forward to the Moon and on to Mars in the Artemis program.
For Episode 111, Benji Reed, director of Crew Mission Management for SpaceX, talks about the SpaceX Crew Dragon, the testing and training thus far including an uncrewed mission to the station, and the exciting future for the commercial crew vehicle. This episode was recorded on August 20th, 2019.
Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, We Have a Podcast. Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center. Episode 111, “The SpaceX Dragon.” I’m Gary Jordan and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts. Scientists, engineers, astronauts, leaders. All to let you know the coolest parts about what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight. So, we’re, once again, launching from American soil, with two different vehicles. Developed by two different companies, SpaceX and Boeing. It’s part of the Commercial Crew Program at NASA, to enable the capability of launching people into space by private businesses. Today, we’re going to highlight one of those vehicles, the SpaceX Dragon. All the way from Hawthorne, California, we connected with Benji Reed. He’s the director of Crew Mission Management for SpaceX, based in Hawthorne. And we go over more about the vehicle itself. The testing and training so far. Including a mission to the International Space Station. And what’s to look forward to in the near future. So, here we go. All you need to know about the SpaceX Dragon, with Mr. Benji Reed. Enjoy.
Host: Benji Reed, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the podcast today. I know you’re a very busy man. And I’m very excited to go through all the things that are the SpaceX Crew Dragon, with you today.
Benji Reed: Oh, thank you so much for having me here. I’m really glad to be a part of the podcast today.
Host: Well, I think — I think how we’re going to start this is we’re going to start from the very beginning. And it’s going to get to the very ground level here. We’re going to talk about what this vehicle is. And what it looks like. So, let’s start there. What is the SpaceX Crew Dragon?
Benji Reed: So, the SpaceX Crew Dragon is a space capsule. It’s, let’s see, it’s about 13 feet in diameter. It’s about 27 feet tall. And it’s kind of the product of a lot of great history and heritage that we have on our own Dragon, Dragon One. The Cargo Dragon that we’ve been flying for a number of years now. In fact, coming into our 19th cargo mission for that Dragon. And then it also builds on the heritage and history of all the NASA capsules out there. As well as other capsules, like the Soyuz. And it’s been — it’s actually pretty exciting to see it kind of culminate and come to the newest, most advanced capsule and spaceship that we’re being able to put together.
Host: Yeah. But that capsule design, you say, you know, pulling from the heritage. It really has to do with the shape of, you know, the capsule. And what it’s meant to do, as a space vehicle, right? There’s not much that can beat that capsule design.
Benji Reed: That’s exactly right. In fact, there’s a really interesting history on it. If you look back in the early days of hypersonics, you know, getting out of supersonics, we’re looking into hypersonic, back in the early 50s. And how do you actually do reentry? And there was a lot of notions. In fact, if you look at some of Von Braun’s early notions of what that would look like. They had these very sleek, almost needlelike designs of rockets. And spacecraft that would reenter with these sort of knife-edge like wings. And what they discovered was that, as much as sort of intuitively, that seemed to make sense to them. That you would kind of cut through the atmosphere and cut through the air that way. That in fact, what happens is you don’t have enough of a sort of a shockwave buffer in front of that material, as you’re coming through. Because you have so much friction heating, you need to actually slow yourself down a little. And build up a larger surface area of shockwave. And so, to do that, you actually have to blunt your reentry. So, instead of this sort of needle and knife edge approach, you actually come into more of a rounded shape. Which is where we get the capsule from. And some of the early pioneers in aviation and dynamics, basically came up with this. And said, hey, you know what? The physics says we should go to a capsule shape. And that went into a wind tunnel test. And discovered that was exactly the case. You’re going to melt off the ends of pointy things. But you could have a nice big round capsule shape with an appropriate heatshield. And appropriate thermal protection system around the vehicle. You could actually make it work really well. And so, we’re kind of building on those decades of heritage, as we move in towards the Crew Dragon.
Host: Yeah. And you sort of hinted at, you know, this next generation. You know, this is kind of — this is a new vehicle that we’re talking about. So, what are some of those cool features? That separate the new Crew Dragon from some of those heritage vehicles, you’re talking about?
Benji Reed: Absolutely. So, probably one of the biggest changes that we like to think about, when we look at Crew Dragon. And as we move into — essentially, as we move away from say, the cargo vehicle. Which is, that we have a launch escape system. So, as much as you do everything you can to keep the vehicle safe and ensure mission success. You kind of want that one extra level of safety. To make sure that you can carry the crew away, in case something came up, right? In case something’s going on in the pad. Something is happening with the Falcon. And you’re like, boy, I really want to get the crew away. And so, how do you do that? So, you look into these launch escape systems. Now, this is not a new concept, generally speaking. Like the Apollo spacecraft and others had, you know, these launch escape towers. And that’s basically a structure that goes on top of the capsule. And has little rockets on it. And it pulls away the capsule, if you will. Kind of hauling the capsule away, in case there’s some sort of emergency. In our case, we’d have an integrated and launch escape system. And those are in the form of the SuperDraco engines that we have on the vehicle. So, Dragon has 12 Draco engines. They’re used for in space orbiting and maneuvering and control. To get to where you need to go when you’re in space. And then it also has eight SuperDraco engines. And that’s one of the big things that’s new. And also, an innovation, again, from that long heritage. Because they’re now integrated into the capsule itself, into the whole system itself. So, instead of having this sort of separate structure that’s hauling you away, pulling you away. You actually have these engines that are pushing you away. They’re integrated within the system. And the — one of the big benefits of doing that, is that you’re able to cover launch escape capability. All the way from launch, into orbit. We don’t have any, of what they call the blackouts zones, we’re — you’re not covered by any kind of launch escape system. There were, in some of the earlier capsule systems, like Apollo, there were blackout periods. Where you didn’t really have that coverage. The Space Shuttle itself, didn’t have any kind of launch escape system, of this nature, at least.
Host: So, that’s…
Benji Reed: Yeah, go ahead.
Host: That’s the logic of it, right? So…
Benji Reed: Yeah.
Host: What you’re talking about, I’m imagining this capsule shape, right? It gets narrower towards the top. And then you mentioned this tower that sort of sticks out the top. And that’s where the engines are. And it’s this pulling phenomenon that’s pulling the capsule, that’s right underneath it. Now, this pushing — this pushing technique, with the SuperDraco engines. The logic there, is you fill in the gaps of when you can actually use this capability. Is that right?
Benji Reed: That’s right. And particularly, because it’s actually integrated into the capsule, right? You don’t have to worry about the separate structure that you’re going to have to jettison at some point.
Benji Reed: You’re just — you’re part of the whole capsule now.
Benji Reed: And it stays with you, actually all the way home. Even, you know, stays on orbit. And when it’s time to come home, it’s all a part of that same capsule that’s coming all the way home.
Host: Yeah, that’s a big part. Because after launch, shortly after launch and orbital insertion. One of the first thing that goes on a crew vehicle, is the launch escape system. But now, you’re carrying it with you the whole time.
Benji Reed: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Host: All right. I like that. What else? What else is cool about the Dragon?
Benji Reed: You know what I really like about Crew Dragon Two, is that we have our integrated solar panels. That are body mounted on the Dragon trunk. And let me back up and explain a little bit about the trunk. And kind of the overall structure of that.
Host: Oh, yeah, we kind of skipped that part. (Laughter)
Benji Reed Yeah. That’s probably good to throw a little bit of that in there. So, yeah, we talked about the fact that you have a capsule. And, you know, kind of this teardrop design that we think of, when you think of a space capsule. And but then there’s another important part of Dragon, which we call the trunk. And the trunk serves two purposes. One; is that it’s a structural element, to basically join the Dragon vehicle to the Falcon Nine rocket. And so, it’s basically that interface piece that goes between the two. The trunk also, on Crew Dragon, serves another purpose. Which is aerodynamic stability in the case of what we call an abort or an escape, which we were just talking about. If you actually have to get away from the Falcon really fast, you want a little bit of extra aerodynamic stability, in those cases. And so, you’ll notice that on Crew Dragon, the trunk has little wings on it. Little fins, I should say, on the sides. And that helps with that aerodynamic stability. The other thing that the trunk is doing, is it actually has these solar panels mounted around the sides. If you look at the current Cargo Dragon, we also have the trunk. It does a similar thing, in terms of being the interface. And the structural interface between Dragon and Falcon. It also provides power. But those are solar panels that basically extend out. They unfold out from the sides of the trunk. And that’s a big innovation that we have now on Crew Dragon with these body mounted solar panels. What you’re getting there, is you’re getting a great amount of simplicity. You’ve eliminated all of the mechanisms. And everything else that goes with them. For having the solar array that unfolds onto Cargo Dragon. Now they’re just body mounted. So, no more of those mechanisms. We’re actually able, with the current solar array, to actually get a higher efficiency and better technology solar arrays overall. So, we can do better from our power management, as well, with those. So, that’s another big innovation that I like a lot, on the trunk.
Host: Wow. Yeah, and it seems like, you know, you were comparing a little bit of the Crew Dragon versus the Cargo Dragon. It seems like a lot of the logic of these elements that you’re putting into the design. Is based off your experience of what you’ve done with flying all of these Cargo Dragons, over these past couple of years with NASA, right?
Benji Reed: That’s right. That’s exactly right. It’s crazy for me to think, you know, kind of based on when I go back to on when I started here at SpaceX. And where we were at. Because we were just about to launch our first Dragon to go to Space Station, right? Which is, not only super cool because it was the first Dragon. But it was the first private spacecraft ever to go to the Space Station. In fact, the first private spacecraft to get launched and orbited. And I had come just after Dragon — the very first Dragon had gone up and done its orbit. And just before the next Dragon was going to go and go to the Space Station. And now you, you know, fast forward. And we’re coming up here on the CRS-19 mission coming up. Wrapping up CRS-18, CRS-19 mission. And that’s crazy. It’s so cool to me to think about how many times we have carried cargo to and from the Space Station. And so, yeah, so, back to your point. We’re building on all of that. All of that experience. All of those times of flying of operating Draco engines. Of designing and building those. Of, you know, fixing problems. Finding learning lessons. Making things better and safer. Coming home on our parachutes. All of that, every time we fly, we learn so much. And we get to apply of that to the Crew Dragon.
Host: That’s right. Now, also, when it comes to flying. And this is a big part of the journey that is the Crew Dragon. Is the vehicle that it’s going to fly on. Or the vehicle that’s going to actually carry it into orbit. And I believe that’s the Falcon Nine, right? This is kind of along the same things that we’re using for Cargo Dragon?
Benji Reed: Yes, you got it. That’s exactly right. And I’m really glad that you bring that up. Because it’s an important point. A lot of times we focus, when we think about the Dragon missions, we focus exclusively on the Dragon vehicle. And, of course, that makes a lot of sense. Because that’s a really cool spacecraft. And that’s what’s kind of doing a lot of the mission. But it’s super important to think about all the other aspects of what it takes to actually fly. And the next one, of course, like you said, is the Falcon. The Falcon Nine rocket. Which has now, a massive heritage. Also developed at the same time the original Dragon, as part of the Cargo Program with NASA. But now since then, has, you know, completely developed. And really revolutionized the whole industry, in how we do launch vehicles. And so, we get to build on all that, as well, for crew.
Host: Yeah. And part of that innovation, when it comes to the Falcon Nine, is some of the recoverable elements of the Falcon, after it launches. Is that right?
Benji Reed: That’s right. That’s right.
Host: Yeah. Now, what about — what about crew vehicles? What has to change with the Falcon Nine itself, to support those crew launches? And how’s that all going to work, once we transition that way?
Benji Reed: Oh, yeah, for sure. So, you know, one of the things we try to do at SpaceX. Is we don’t like to — try to avoid having kind of these two different levels of quality. I mean, sort of, like, well, this is quality that we need to and kind of use whenever. And this is quality that we’re going to do for human space flight. And when I say quality, I mean, you know, everything. You know, whether it’s how we — reliability of design. Safety and reliability of design, of fabrication. Of build, of integration of tests. And, of course, of operation. That whole picture of how safe and how reliable are we going to be? Ultimately, you really want to learn how to do it at the top best level. And practice that all the time. So, in a way, we actually look at things like Falcon. And we fly Falcon all the time. We want to say, well, every single mission counts. Every single mission is important. Not just for all of our customers. But for also, the sake of learning and applying those lessons, when we do start to fly people. So, it’s a kind of win, win, when you take that philosophy. And say, all right, how do I make sure I’m going to do the best? And make every single mission count? And so, on one hand, you try not to have a lot of differences. You really don’t want to. Because every time you go to fly some satellite or some other mission, you’re getting lessons. You’re getting heritage. And you’re making it safer for crew. As long as you kept the same configurations, more or less. As long as you’re basically flying the same vehicle. The same kind of operation, this is really important. So, that said, we continue to try to do that, try to keep it the same. But to your question, what did we change? Well, probably one of the biggest things that we’ve done, is we’ve looked across the whole Falcon vehicle and said, all right, what do we need to beef up? What needs to be more fault tolerant? And one of the things we may end up talking about more here, is the general concept of fault tolerance. And it says — that’s basically saying, well, how many failures or faults can you sustain and still be able to complete the mission? And or, still be able to get everybody home safely? And kind of one of the basic rules of thumb that we have, on the Crew Program, is two-fault tolerance. You kind of need to have the two-fault tolerance across the whole system. So, that anything and any system or subsystem can sustain two faults or two failures. And then be able to continue. And or keep everybody safe. And so, we looked across all of our systems, including the Falcon. And said, where do we need to do that? Now, obviously, there’s some places where you don’t really have, like, redundancy. Where you don’t have — I’m not going to have separate rockets to launch one vehicle. That doesn’t actually make a lot of sense. So, you look at how — well, how do I structurally get okay? Do I have enough margin in my design and in my analysis? And then demonstrate a test, in order to say, yeah, I’m actually going to be okay. I’ve got plenty of margin. Or I’ve got enough redundancy. Or some other solution that helps meet that fault tolerance. And we did a lot of that kind of thinking and analysis. And testing on Falcon, as well as Dragon, as well as our ground systems. To make sure that we could do that.
Host: Yeah. That’s a big conversation, we talk about a lot. Actually, with a lot of the engineers on this podcast, too. Is this fault tolerance, this idea of redundancy, right? So, if something were to go wrong, you have something else that can back it up. And that has to do with the reliability of the whole thing. And it’s definitely something to appreciate, right? Is just how perfectly everything has to run, to make this thing work. It looks so simple from the outside, right? Big tube lights on fire, sends things to space. But it’s so more complicated. So much more complicated than that.
Benji Reed: Yeah.
Host: And it is something definitely to appreciate. I want to go back to, you talked about the, you know, the Crew Dragon. You were talking about pulling from heritage designs and stuff. I know when it comes to this Commercial Crew Program that is working with NASA, it’s different, right? It’s, we’re working with commercial companies. And it’s not like this traditional way of doing business. Where NASA has these requirements. And has a contract for someone to fulfill these requirements. Now we’re working with commercial industries. So, can you talk about what it’s like working with NASA? And being your own innovative commercial company? Coming up with these designs and still, you know, fulfilling what has to be done for providing crew transportation to the International Space Station?
Benji Reed: Absolutely. Well, the first thing I would say is that we love NASA. You know, NASA is like, one of our top, most important customers. They’ve been with us from the beginning. At the — you know, when I talk about the development of the Cargo Program, what we called the COTS Program. That was just super critical to the development of Dragon and Falcon Nine, from the very beginning. And NASA is a great partner, in that way. And – but it’s a good question. How do you really make it work, right? And how do we put this together? And I think one of the keys is that in commercial space and in the model that NASA’s helped — is trying to help set up from a commercial space perspective. It’s, well, look, we want to get something done. So, now we’re going to go out to, you know, the commercial industry. And we’re going to go out to these companies. And we’re going to say, all right, who can do this for us? But we’re not going to tell you exactly how to do it. We’re going to tell you what the ultimate goal is, what’s the objective? And in this case, for example, we’re going to transport astronauts to and from the Space Station, reliably and safely. So, we need somebody to be able to do that. We’re going to have a certain set of requirements that you need to meet. And that’s always a big point of debate, as to, like, how many requirements? And how prescriptive should those requirements be? And so, for example, in this program, the Commercial Crew Program, they try to do a pretty good job of balancing the amount of prescriptiveness of those requirements. Versus, just kind of saying, well, you got to transport four people. That’s a requirement, right?
Benji Reed: Versus, well, you have to exactly apply this standard. And do the different thing, when you’re working with metals or something like that. So, there’s these kind of different debates about how much you apply. But ultimately, of course, that’s all on contract. And you go and say, all right, I got to go meet these sets of requirements. So, when it comes to actually working with NASA to do that, the goal is to work in an insight environment. As opposed to an oversight environment. And I think that’s very important. And again, this program, I think, NASA does a really good job of finding that balance. And really applying insight. Where, basically what that means is they get — we kind of show them everything, right? They’re partners, we’re partners together. And we work together to see well, how are we designing things? Why are we applying these different standards? Why do we think other standards apply? So, the first step, what are we — what kind of tests are we doing? Are we doing enough testing? Do we do enough analysis? What’s the margin on those analyses? All these kinds of questions that come up. And we need to have good engineers and engineer conversations about that. And we try to do that. And so, we try to embed our and NASA engineers together. To be able to talk through things and work through things. And that’s part of that insight role. We’re giving NASA lots and lots of insights. They have access to all of the work that we do. All of the paperwork and designs that we do.
Host: Yeah, it’s — it sounds like a relationship, right? So…
Benji Reed: Yeah.
Host: They’re knowing what you guys are doing. And then I’m sure you’re pulling from NASA. You know, what did you used to do? Oh, here’s data and testing we did on X, Y, Z. So, is there a lot of, like, data sharing, I guess, on both sides?
Benji Reed: Absolutely.
Benji Reed: Absolutely. So, we share a ton of data with them. And then they share — they give us a lot of comments and feedback and response back to us. But they also have a wealth of industry — a wealth of knowledge from NASA programs, as well as the broader industry. And they try to share that with us, as well. So, that we can hopefully, you know, ultimately develop the very best design that we can.
Host: All right. I think that lays the foundation pretty nicely. I think — let’s go into some of the testing and training. How we’re taking this concept, with all these features and these relationships with NASA. And putting them to use. So, let’s talk about what’s been done so far, when it comes to Crew Dragon. When it comes to testing this vehicle. What have we done so far?
Benji Reed: You know, that’s a great question. Because I love tests. We love tests [brief laughter]. Because, you know, as we often like to think, you know, the most important thing is getting data. And taking that data and applying it to be able to actually go fly. And the best way to do that is do lots of tests. And one of the early tests that we did in this program, for example, was we started building out the avionic system. The electronic system, right, of the Dragon. Early on in creating our Hardware-in-the-Loop Tables or HITL Tables. It’s basically where we take all the electronic boxes and start to lay them out with all the harnessing on a table. And you’re kind of running a virtual environment on flight-like hardware. And that way you can start to actually see how the vehicle is going to function electronically. But also, in software spacing. Start to develop all the software that you’re laying on top on the electronics. And you’re running the vehicle that way. And that’s a really important early test. And that was actually one of our very first big milestones that we went through many years ago on the program. So, that’s an example of the kinds of sub-system and then system level tests that we start early on. At the same time, in doing all of this qualification testing on the component and sub-systems. You know, and I think — I’m sure most of your listeners are aware of qualification testing. But ultimately what you do, is you say, well, what are all the environments that a component has to go through? And or a sub-system has to go through? And say, well, what’s the maximal pull, maximum heat that you’re going to see? What are the maximum dynamic environments that you might see? These sorts of things. And then you actually put these further margins on them. You go, well, I’m going to actually test my design to go colder or hotter. Or see a higher vibration level. And then you run all of these tests, all of your components through all of these tests. You’re designing to prove those out. So, we’ve been doing that from the beginning. And continuing to do that, going on to make sure that everything is fully qualified. And then you go to these other really big system level tests. So, I kind of talked about that Hardware-in-the-Loop, HITL testing table, HITL table testing that we did early on. Also, early on, we went ahead and we did a pad abort test. And our launch escape system, or launch abort system. We had that initial design ready to go early on. And we built a capsule. And had it on the pad. We didn’t have it on a rocket. But we had it on the pad, down at the Cape. And ignited the SuperDraco engines. And popped the Dragon off, to show that you could get off the pad really fast. And open the parachutes and come down safely into the ocean. And that was a good example of a system level test that we did, as well. Since then, there’s just everything in the middle and in between, you know, all those component level qualification tests for those system level tests. We do all kinds of structural tests of the trunk. And of the Dragon’s structure overall and onward. And then you get into some of the other kind of, you know, cool and interesting systems, as well. For example, like, spacesuits, right?
Host: Oh, yeah.
Benji Reed: And so, you have to do lots of testing. The spacesuit is a piece of hardware, just like everything else. And I remember one of my favorite tests that we did was — it was the first time we did a vacuum chamber test. A suited vacuum chamber test. So, somebody actually had to get into the spacesuit. And, you know, get it all set up. And make sure everything was on right. And the pressure was going to come through correctly. And then, pumped out all the air in the chamber that they were in. And show that they could be fine in a vacuum wearing the suit. And it was actually kind of the chief engineer for the spacesuit program, who wore the suit himself. To demonstrate that it would be safe. That was pretty cool.
Host: Yeah. If anyone’s going to put himself on the line, it’s going to be the guy who’s in charge of the whole thing.
Benji Reed: Yeah.
Host: There you go. That’s confidence in your design. Not bad. But again, it’s taking — you know, you’re not kidding when you say you guys love tests. You’re talking about every form of tests. And it’s all about — the idea of testing is making sure that this part is going to work, right? Is it structurally sound? Does — are the engines firing right? In a scenario where we did need to have an abort right off the pad, is everything going to go just fine? And these are all — these are all very, very important to actually conducting a mission. So, I kind of wanted to skip ahead to when you guys actually conducted a mission. Demo One, that was earlier this year, right?
Benji Reed: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And it’s a good segue, too. Because that was technically a test.
Benji Reed: A true system test in the end. And yeah, that was earlier this year, it was in March. And it was amazing. I was super excited the day we came home. And, like, I don’t think that enthusiasm was weaned at all [brief laughter].
Host: That is awesome!
Benji Reed: It was one of the coolest things, in my career, to have seen that happen. And it was just a lot of — a huge amount of work and effort on everybody here at SpaceX. And, of course, all of our NASA partners, to see that happen. And it was. What was cool about that test, is that it was almost flawless, in the way that it ran. We learned a lot of things from it. But most of our predictions, we hit right down the line. And it was a full test. We launched off of 39A, our pad. We launched on the Falcon Nine, in the configuration that we expect to fly for crew. Got Dragon on orbit. Dragon did an initial orbital operation. And they got to Space Station. We docked. And it was the first time that a U.S. vehicle, autonomously docked to the Space Station ever. And hung out on the Station. Probably one of the coolest things I’ve seen, was having crew board Dragon. Get inside there and check things out. And do some of the work that they needed to do. And then we came home. And watched the parachute system just perform beautifully. And the recovery crew went out and got Dragon. It was — it was great. It was amazing.
Host: Yeah. I had the pleasure, I’ll say, of being a part of that mission. This was, in terms of the public affairs operations of things working. You know, we worked with SpaceX very closely, to do this joint broadcast. And show, you know, exactly what you’re saying. All the work that went with all the teams. And this integration that lead to this moment. This compilation of tests to prove that this vehicle was going to be able to fly to Earth. And a couple of those elements — I mean, you went over nicely of these different things. I know another key part of the test was this anthropomorphic figure that was inside, right, Ripley. What was that all about?
Benji Reed: Yeah. So, part of doing the whole test overall, of course, is just gathering a lot of data.
Benji Reed: And just for, again, just a quick step back. You had mentioned, you said testing to see how everything’s going to work. And you’re spot on about that. The other thing you’re doing with testing, is you’re gathering data, to see if you were right. Like, not only does it work, but do I understand the physics and the engineering enough? To know that — to be able to predict for future states, right? Because you kind of want to make sure you’re going to work across a whole range of conditions and environments and situations. And so, you’re gathering all of the data, in order to be able to predict and ground your models. And a really important one, in that case, is what’s going to happen when people are flying? Because we get a sense of like kind of what the overall loads and environments are, in the vehicle. But you want to get an even better sense of what does it feel like to the human body? And so, that’s where that anthropomorphic test unit came from. We said, we’ll, we want to be able to really measure a lot of what’s going on in the loads and forces that a human body would feel in the vehicle. Throughout all the phases of flight. You know, launch and on orbit and docking. And especially coming home and landing in the water. How does all of that going to — is that — is it all within our predictions, right? Because we want to make sure that you’re staying well within the predictions of what keeps people safe. And so, that’s what that — that’s what that dummy was there for. And it’s fully suited in one of the spacesuits, just like we would have with the crew during those dynamic phases of flight. And I personally thought that the name was really, really cool.
Benji Reed: One of my favorite sets of movies. And one of my favorite characters and actresses, actually, doing that. So, I thought Ripley was really good.
Host: Yeah, yeah. Definitely a shout out to all the space geeks out there who’ve been inspired by space movies all around the world.
Benji Reed: Exactly.
Host: I love it. I also like the little Earth that was brought up, too. That was just a nice thing to — for everyone, I think, to engage in.
Benji Reed: Yeah. That was our very complex low G test unit, right [brief laughter]?
Host: Yeah. The microgravity indicator, right? The crew even…
Benji Reed: Microgravity indicator, yeah.
Benji Reed: That’s right, you got it [brief laughter].
Host: Yeah. Even the crew does that now. They love bringing those little trinkets. And it’s just an awesome way to recognize, oh, my gosh, I’m in space! Wonderful.
Benji Reed: You know, and it is important too because one of the things that’s so important in what we do is inspiration. You know, it’s always been a mission of NASA’s. And I think it’s definitely a mission of SpaceX, as well. Is that we have to inspire ourselves to want to go do this stuff, to go explore. And to go to the stars. To go to the Moon. To go to Mars and to go further. And that inspiration comes from those little touches, a lot of the times. I mean, we all get super excited by giant rockets and big engines and lots of space flight. But there’s also kind of another side to it. And I’ll be honest, one of the images that — with little Earth in there. It was little Earth in the capsule with the real Earth looking outside the window. That’s the first time we’ve seen Earth outside of a window on that Dragon. And it was so neat to see that in the kind of juxtaposition. And then especially when the crew was in there with little Earth. There’s this sort of, I don’t know, almost poetic nature to seeing all of that put together. And to me, that’s part of what we’re doing, that inspiration.
Host: Yeah. It’s something that I think a lot of people can connect with. But I think especially for the SpaceX teams, really. Like you said, a lot of people worked really, really hard on this mission. So, to see that photo — it might just be a moment. But it just shows, man, I worked hard on that. And look, it’s in space. There it is! Little Earth floating to the real Earth. And it’s just a moment, but it means so much to all the teams that worked so hard on it.
Benji Reed: Exactly.
Benji Reed: You got it.
Host: So, what did you learn from Demo One? What are the — some of this — because this was an un-crewed flight, right? Where you just — you said, collecting data. And making sure that everything works. What did we learn from that flight?
Benji Reed: So, I — that’s a great question. And I think two of the big things that you really want to learn, when you go on orbit. Why you do an orbital test, is one is fluid dynamics in microgravity. And the other one is the behavior of your capsule on entry, decent and landing. Kind of coming through the atmosphere, particularly, upon initial entry. And so, you — because you can — the kind of the body of knowledge that we have in the industry and here at SpaceX, as well. Is that we can pull on, we can do a lot of great modeling. And a huge amount of ground test, we can do, right? We can do thermal tests. We can do vacuum chamber tests. And thermal vacuum tests. Where you’re kind of really getting the whole sense of everything. Lots of modeling, lots of analysis. But there’s just a few things that you kind of really want to make sure you ring out on a system level. And, of course, all of it you do. You want to see the whole thing. But the two that come to mind, in terms of what we learned about, are fluid dynamics and entry, descent and landing. And fluid dynamics, particularly, there’s a lot of — obviously there’s a lot of fuel in Dragon, right? We’ve got our fluid systems in Dragon. You want to see how all that’s going to work together. How does it all behave, when you’re outside normal gravity? And then the other thing is the shape of the capsule. We were talking about capsules earlier. And that’s really, really important, is exactly how that shape interacts with the atmosphere. Your angle of entry, coming into the atmosphere. Your control of that, as you move through. And then, of course, the moment when you can release your chutes and come down. All of that’s pretty dynamic. And actually, very, very complex physics and behaviors going on there. And it’s hard to model. And while, you know, I think we’re working with the very state of the art and some of the very smartest people in these fields. You always want to go through and test that. So, those were the two biggest things that I would say that we learned. Probably the very close third would be the docking itself, as well, right? Because that’s the first time that that docking system was used. And understanding how that would work. And that we could basically bring two, you know, spacecrafts together. I always think of the Space Station as a spacecraft. Because it fundamentally is. And how do the two spacecrafts come together and actually dock? Especially doing it autonomously. We learned a lot from that, as well. The truth is, is that all three of those things, again, we pretty much kind of nailed the data. Nailed the expectations, based on the analysis, the data indicated that. However, it’s good to see that. And it’s also good to see exactly how — what little pieces that were different than what we planned. We can feed that back into our models and refine them even more.
Host: Yeah. And that’s really important, right? Because ultimately, like you said, when we were talking briefly about when, you know, NASA and SpaceX were talking. What’s the mission? It’s to take crew safely up to the International Space Station. And return them safely to Earth. And having that extra verification that the things that you thought were going to work, worked. And, you know, here’s maybe some other things we can think about along the way. That’s super important to make sure you have right, before you put a human being inside of it.
Benji Reed: That’s exactly right.
Host: Now, I know, after Demo One, you know, the mission wasn’t over. I know this was something that was in the news. Was the anomaly that happened, right after — I guess, shortly after splashdown. So, what happened there?
Benji Reed: Yeah. So, what was going on there, as we talked about, is our launch escape system, our launch abort system. And what we wanted to do; is we want to go into our inflight abort test. So, just a little bit of background on that first. The inflight abort test is where we take Dragon and we put it on top of a rocket, launch the rocket. And basically, we kind of get to your worst-case conditions, what we call max q or your maximum dynamic conditions on launch. And at that point, then you initiate the launch escape system. And make sure, again, that you could get the crew away safely, in that situation. So, we were getting ready to do that. And we were going to use that same capsule that we used for Demo One, for that launch escape test. And as part of the preparations, before that test, we did some refurbishment on the Dragon. Just a little bit we needed to do to kind of get ready to fly again. And we put it on a test stand, down at the Cape. And we did an initial test of those 12 Draco engines, which went great. Everything came out nominally. And then we were going to do an initial firing of the SuperDracos, the SuperDracos. And just as we were about to initiate that, just as we were initiating that, those SuperDracos, there was an anomaly. And it resulted in explosion. And we lost the vehicle. Obviously, that was kind of a big shock for all of us. Very, very unexpected. But also, kind of really the reason of why we test, right? And I talked earlier a little bit about all the kinds of testing that you do. And all the kinds of analyses that you do, to make sure that you’re going to do things right. But at the end of the day, a full system level test, is just really hard to beat that. And that’s what that was. It was a full system level test. And so, we learned a lot. We learned a ton from it. And kind of the bottom line of what happened there, is that what we discovered was — so, let me actually back up and give a little bit of a background. So, there’s kind of multiple systems, right, as part of our propulsion system. As part of our — the Draco, and SuperDraco engines. There’s the liquid system, the fluid system, right? With your fuels in there. And there’s also the gas system. So, the helium, the high-pressure helium system. And you use that high-pressure helium system to keep pressures up as you need to, as you’re actually operating those engines. So, for example, when you’re going to operate the SuperDraco engines, you actually need to feed the fuel through those engines at a high rate and a very high pressure. So, you use this high-pressure helium system to push that fuel through, at the rate that you need. And so, what we discovered, was that there was a valve that — between those two systems. That was allowing a little bit of the fluid to leak back into the gas system. And that fluid, just the right amount of fluid, had leaked in. And kind of had made a little slug, if you will, of liquid. Just a little bead of the liquid in the tubing in the piping of that — of the gas system. And so, then — and that had been — that had happened at some point previous to when we were going to do the testing. And then when we initiated that test, basically, went to open up and pressurize that helium system. It accelerated that slug of fluid a lot. And that slug of fluid impacted one of the valves at high speed. And basically, had enough energy to initiate an explosion. And that was — that was eye opening. And the reason particularly, was because over all the years and all the spacecraft that use the same fluids, these same fuels. And use the same kinds of materials. In this case, titanium, for the lines. Nobody had ever predicted that you could be able to get that kind of reaction. At least it was not commonly thought that that was possible. And so, it was actually kind of industry leading knowledge that we all gained from this. And have been sharing with NASA and with others. Because it’s really important that we understand the behavior of this. Now, the key here is that it was accelerated at a really high rate. And so, that’s part of what we needed to figure out, was how do we prevent that from happening again? And we’ve already been doing a lot of design — redesign work. And implementation of those mitigations of those fixes. And the simplest thing that we’ve done, and it’s always often the best thing — the best solution is the simplest solution. And in this case, it turns out to be what we call a burst disk. So, instead of having a valve in place of trying to hold back or kind of separate the two systems. We now added a burst disk that will prevent — kind of hermetically seals the two systems from each other. So, that there’s no way that liquid can kind of slowly leak in and create that little slug of propellant. And then when you’re ready to actually use the system, when you get up to the right pressure, that burst disk does what it sounds like it does, it just bursts. And let’s the gas through, so that you can pressurize the rest of the system appropriately. And we’ve been doing a significant amount of testing on that, on the ground, as well. And then we look forward to doing another test of the SuperDracos on the ground again, before we do our inflight abort test.
Host: Yeah. There’s just — you know, this goes back to your comment about the value of testing. And then doing this level. But that’s — the value really is, you have — you identify an issue. You identify a problem. You look at it. You find out what is causing that issue. And you do everything in your power to make sure that it’s not going to happen again. And even better, you’re sharing the knowledge so that others don’t encounter the same problem. It’s just part of good engineering. And again, going back to the ultimate goal here, is the safety of the crew. And the success of the mission. But these are — you know, that’s human space flight. It’s risky business. But at the same time, you’re doing so many checks and balances to make sure this is going to work.
Benji Reed: That’s exactly right. And you can’t say it enough. I mean, that’s why we test. In fact, I had a niece that said that. I think she was about six. And I was really proud of her. I think she’s going to be an engineer [brief laughter] in the future.
Host: Well, that’s…
Benji Reed: She said, “That’s why we test, right?” And I said, “That’s exactly right.” But it’s true because you learn a lot. And I think it was — there was an earlier conversation where, I think, the program manager from NASA said that, you know, this was a gift. And it is. And it’s important not to overlook that. Because we learn these things. It’s hard — it was very hard to predict this would happen. Both in the system behavior, but also in the sort of fundamental behavior between the fluid and the metal. And now we know. And now we’re much safer because of it. And then here’s the other thing that we don’t often think a lot about. Is that when you have a, you know, a major event like that, you actually get a lot of other data, too. So, the good thing is, because it was a ground test, we were really — we were really connected up with lots of video. And also, lots of feeds of data coming from the vehicle. So, we were able to actually get a sense of how everything else was reacting and behaving in this very extreme situation. It’s allowed us to go back and look at the whole vehicle. And actually, make it safer, as well. So, it’s not just even the primary lessons that you get to learn, but you learn a lot from it. So, I’m — I feel a lot more confident, as we move into the next phase.
Host: Yeah. And that next phase, really, is I think you guys are working hard towards getting crew on board. And then a significant part of that is the training with the crew, right? We have NASA astronauts going out and working with you guys closely. In fact, I think I saw recently a picture of them actually suited up in those launch and entry suits. So, what are they doing? How are they interacting with the Crew Dragon and working with you guys?
Benji Reed: Sure. So, the crew has been kind of embedded with our team, from the very beginning. Even before they were assigned to specific missions or specific providers. You know, large groups of the crew members were coming out and visiting with us. And meeting our teams. And starting to hear about initial designs. And that’s just been going on continuously. You know, I look at the crew as being really a part of our team, right? We’re all one team. And so, they need to be engineers with us, as well as operators with us. I also look at them as being part of the system, right? They have to — when the Dragon is up there, it’s one integrated system. And the crew is part of that system that all needs to work seamlessly together. And so, to do that, you have to do a lot of knowledge sharing and a lot of practice. And so, the kinds of things that they’ve been doing have been, you know, working with our design teams to give input. The astronauts come to us with a huge amount of experience. Years and years of experience, both in space flight, but also in aviation, as pilots. And with that kind of, you know, background and knowledge and wisdom, they can help influence design. Both in terms of how they interface directly with the vehicle. The kind of controls that we provide. But also, in terms of the kinds of just overall, you know, system level design and test. So, we get that kind of input from them in conversations, meeting with all of our teams. And then we start to move into the more direct training, as you mentioned. And a lot of that training begins in kind of tabletop exercises. Where we have sort of a script of what we’re going to do through different phases of flight. And we think of phases like, launch or, you know, on orbit or docking or coming home or recovery. And then as we look at those phases, we say, well, we need to practice what we’re all going to do in those situations. So, you start with your tabletop exercises. Where you walk through, kind of start to write up the procedures, you work with a draft. And you start to add and evolve those and mature those into something that you’re going to use on the day of your actual operation. Then, as you evolve those procedures and those processes, what we call the ConOps, or the operations concept. You’ve also been developing all of your training units. You’ve been developing your actual flight software. Your actual operational software, ground software. And you’ve been developing these great training simulators that we have. So, we have this Dragon, this Crew Dragon simulator that we have here. That’s basically a full-blown mockup of Dragon. It’s really cool to sit in. And it’s like being inside of the Dragon capsule itself, with everything that’s flight-like in there. And that’s fully wired in to our ground systems, our ground control systems. Our ground software systems, is running itself. It’s running the flight software on flight-like avionics. And then everybody gets to practice that way. And so, then you start to move into these full-blown simulations. But we just call it SIMS for short. And in these simulations, you’ve got the astronauts in their suits, in their seats with their Com on. Just like you’re doing for flight. You’ve got the NASA operators down at Houston, in their places in Mission Control. You’ve got our operators here in Mission Control. And our mission director kind of leading the whole activity. And then they’re all in Com, talking over what we call the voice loops, talking over their microphone. And the communications systems and the crew with theirs inside of their helmets. And off they go. And they run a full phase of flight. They run all these different scenarios. They run through different things that can happen, different contingency situations. And they run the procedures that they have to do. It’s really exciting. It’s a very cool thing to see. And we’ve been doing a number of them already.
Host: Yeah. It kind of makes you — it seems kind of real, right? Like you’re simulating because you’re — it’s like a mission. It’s like actually running a mission. What’s going to happen with crew on board? And how are the teams going to interact with them? But it’s cool how astronauts have been, you know, since — involved with the design of how things are going to interact. Because ultimately, it’s going to be them actually interacting with the vehicle. But then, reverse, you know? Here’s what we’ve — here’s the input we’ve taken from you guys. And we’ve put it into this vehicle. Let’s, you know, let’s see — let’s put together a scenario. And see how you guys perform in it. And that’s cool. That’s coming along. Because that’s coming up in the not too distant future. Crews actually interacting with the vehicle, as part of this final test flight, before we start a regular cadence of flights, right? From the SpaceX Dragon. Because that’s the ultimate goal is the Dragon is going to take crew, launching from America, to the International Space Station, as part of a regular cadence of flight, right?
Benji Reed: That’s exactly right. I mean, ultimately, you — this goes all the way back to what we were talking about. How is it to interact with NASA? And how is this set up? Ultimately, NASA said, hey, we need this service. We need you to do this for us. And in this case, this service is, regularly transport crew safely to and from the Space Station. And regularly being kind of on these roughly six-month intervals. That are what they call the — basically, the Space Station has these different periods of time when they’re planning these increments, is what they call them. And they plan these, you know, all of the activities. And all of the crew that’s going to be doing this work, during this increment, okay? And they — so, they need to make sure that the new crew is going come up in time. The old crew can do a handoff and come home. And so, there’s this – that’s that regular cadence that you’re talking about. Because there’s so much planning and work that goes into operating the Space Station efficiently and well. To absolutely maximize the use of that resource and the crews time on board that national lab. It’s really important. So, it’s important that they know, yep, this crew is going to come up. And we know what the crew is. We know when they’re going to come. And they’re going to show up there on time. And that they’re going to be able to go home on time. Ultimately, that’s the service that we’re providing.
Host: Yeah. And it’s a service, but it is a partnership, like you mentioned, too. Because it has to do with flight control teams and SpaceX working together hand in hand with the flight control teams here at Mission Control Houston. And making sure that the International Space Station and SpaceX are flying in sync. And it sounds like you’ve been doing SIMS to work all of that. We talked about, when it comes to actually launching SpaceX, launching from Florida. You know, you’re ascending and going — meeting up with the International Space Station. Returning, I believe in the Atlantic, right? Are you returning in the Atlantic? That’s where Dragon is going to land?
Benji Reed: That’s right. That’s right.
Benji Reed: We’re coming from on the East Coast.
Host: Okay. Yeah, and so, we’re getting ready for that. And all the operations that have to do with recovery and communications. And this is all coming up soon. What do we have to look forward to in the near future? When it comes to Dragon and seeing crew launch from the International Space Station? Or at least, what’s next for the Crew Dragon, in terms of testing, before we get ready for that flight?
Benji Reed: That’s great. Those are great questions.
Benji Reed: And actually, just to kind of segue a little bit with that. One thing you mentioned, you said there, was about, you know, this partnership that we’ve been working together. And to point out, I would really like to emphasize, I don’t think we talked about it enough. And it goes to the heart of your question about what testing is coming up. The reality is, is that every time we fly a cargo mission. For example, we’ve CRS-19 coming up. That is also another practice run in this partnership of operations. It’s easy to kind of forget that we’ve actually been practicing a form of human space flight and joint human space flight operations. Since the very beginning of the Cargo Program. Every time Dragon gets close to the Space Station, and then has to come and berth to the Space Station. And then the crew gets on board and starts to unload all the cargo and put it back in. Those are fully joint operations with NASA. So, the good news is we’ve actually been practicing a lot of that from the beginning. And practicing what it is to do that. The only difference now is that we’re actually going to have the crew on board from launch and all the way back home. And that joint operation that we’re doing, kind of expands out to that time. From the moment the crew reaches the pad, to the moment when we hand them back off at home. And so, we get to see another one of those coming up soon, which is great. So, we’ll see the next CRS mission come up. The next thing that we’ll be doing after that, is you’re going to see the inflight abort. We’re going to be doing, again, that static fire test, repeat that ground level test on Dragon. The one that’s going to go up for the inflight abort test. Then we’ll do the inflight abort test itself. Which again, is where we go on top of the rocket and launch the rocket. And then launch escape — or escape the Dragon from the vehicle, from Falcon Nine. And then after that is Demonstration Two or Demo Two. And that is the first mission to carry people on board, with our two crew members, Bob and Doug.
Host: And then as — you know, assuming this mission goes according to plan. And we can go into the next phase, which is, you know, now we are, you know, we have this service. SpaceX Dragon is carrying crews to and from the International Space Station. Launching from Florida. That’s really exciting to think about, that that’s in our future. That’s in our near future.
Benji Reed: Yeah, absolutely.
Benji Reed: Yeah, I’m very excited about that. And that’s the real prize, right? I mean, number one is getting the crew there and home safely. But really that big prize is doing that. But on this reliable cadence of operating and providing the Station with operational crews. And so, yeah, that’s coming up soon. We’ll see that engage this coming year.
Host: Yeah. I am very, very much looking forward to this next era of human space flight. Benji Reed, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. Going into excruciating detail on all things Crew Dragon. I definitely appreciate it. I love asking all of these questions and learning more. And it’s — it really is an exciting time. I’m really looking forward to getting this thing — carrying crews to and from the International Space Station. Thanks a lot.
Benji Reed: Oh, thank you. It’s been a pleasure to be on.
Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Benji Reed. These missions are going to be coming up here in the near future. So, stay tuned on NASA TV. You can watch all of our missions live. We talked a little bit about our joint coverage that we’ll be doing. And we’ll be doing it soon, here in the near future. Again, NASA TV, you can go to nasa.gov/ntv. You can also subscribe to our social media channels. We’ll be putting stuff out on there, on the International Space Station, NASA Johnson Space Center. And, of course, NASA pages, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you want all things Commercial Crew, nasa.gov/commercialcrew. And if you want all things NASA podcast, nasa.gov/podcast. On social media, if you use the #askNASA on your favorite platform, you can submit and idea for the show. Just make sure to mention it’s for Houston We Have a Podcast. We’ll try our best to bring it right here. This episode was recorded on August 20th, 2019. Thanks to Alex Perryman, Pat Ryan, Norah Moran, Kelly Humphries, Kyle Herring, Eva Behrend and Dan Hout. Thanks again to Mr. Benji Reed for coming on the show. We’ll be back next week.