He said there “was nothing to be concerned with at all times. The astronauts were safe, and the vehicle was working perfectly.” The heat shield is a vital component of the spacecraft that protects the astronauts as they plunge through the thickening atmosphere, creating temperatures that reach as high as 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Still, the news of the heat shield redesign was concerning to some. “It’s probably just me — a product of the dark days I lived through — but I get shivers when a hear that human spacecraft heatshield showed unexpected degraded performance and requires ‘minor’ modification,” former Space Shuttle flight director Wayne Hale wrote on Twitter, recalling the tragedy of the Columbia, which came apart during reentry. “Yes, that gives me shivers. Be thorough. Do good work.”
In addition to reinforcing the part of the heat shield, Koenigsmann said the company is refining how it measures the capsule’s altitude as it returns to Earth. During the August test flight, the drogue parachutes deployed at a slightly lower altitude than the company expected, but still well within safety parameters, he said.
Finally, SpaceX and NASA are working with the Coast Guard to create a 10-mile “keep-out zone” around the spacecraft once its splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico.
During the test mission, recreational boats swarmed the vehicle, still loaded with volatile propellant, after it landed in the Gulf of Mexico, creating a safety hazard. “We’re going to have more boats on the next go-round, and make sure that the area is really clear of any other boats,” Koenigsmann said.
The test mission saw Hurley and Behnken spend two months on the International Space Station before their return. Now SpaceX is scheduled to launch a crew of four astronauts — three Americans and one Japanese — in the wee hours of Oct. 31. It would be the first operational flight of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft and the first time the company has flown four people at once on what will be a long-duration mission to the station, lasting six months.
NASA said it is close to granting SpaceX the final certification that would pave the way for the company to fly astronauts to the space station on a regular basis under NASA’s “commercial crew program.”
NASA leaders on Tuesday expressed confidence in the company, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, which also flies cargo and supplies to the station. As those missions continue, SpaceX will have one of its spacecraft docked at the station continuously for the next 14 months, another demonstration of the company’s ability.
“This really is a new era for us as a company and for commercial space in general,” said Benji Reed, SpaceX’s commercial crew program manager.
The problem with the heat shield was in a few small areas where the crew capsule joins the spacecraft’s trunk, an unpressurized cargo hold that is jettisoned before reentering the atmosphere. Officials noticed more erosion than expected during post-flight inspections. “Okay, we should probably reinforce the heat shield in this particular area,” Koenigsmann said they decided.
The astronauts slated to fly next month said they were not concerned.
“There is an amazing team that has been brought together to work this issue,” NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins, the commander of the mission, said Tuesday. “And we are confident in this team, and their ability to find the right solutions.”