NASA Rehearses Astronaut Launch — and Rescue — with SpaceX, Boeing (Photos)

NASA astronaut Doug Hurley and other NASA and SpaceX personnel practice pulling humans out of SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule on Aug. 13, 2019.
NASA astronaut Doug Hurley and other NASA and SpaceX personnel practice pulling humans out of SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule on Aug. 13, 2019. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Both SpaceX and Boeing are busily preparing for the first crewed launches of their commercial spacecraft, and in case something goes wrong, they're simulating different types of emergencies. 

The companies are contracted under NASA to provide commercial crew spacecraft for missions to the International Space Station (ISS) to supplement the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that is currently used for all ISS launches, which blast off  from a facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The first commercial crew astronauts will fly late this year or sometime in 2020, if all goes according to plan. SpaceX and Boeing will each launch their spacecraft from Florida, marking the first time American astronauts have launched from their home country since the last space shuttle mission in 2011.

SpaceX and NASA geared up for the first launch of a Crew Dragon with astronauts aboard with a dress rehearsal of launch day — including simulated emergencies. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will fly the first Crew Dragon mission, practiced suiting up in a SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, California, with SpaceX's ground closeout team. The NASA and SpaceX teams did a simulated launch countdown, as well as several emergency launch scenarios, which is common practice for all astronauts preparing for spaceflight.

Related: SpaceX's Crew Dragon Demo-1 Test Flight in Pictures

Some of Boeing's first CST-100 Starliner crew also conducted emergency launch scenarios at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. NASA astronaut Josh Cassada, who will be on the first Starliner crew, participated in the exercise, as well as Eric Boe (who initially was assigned to a Starliner mission, but pulled for medical reasons in January) and astronaut candidate Jasmin Moghbeli (who is completing certification exercises to qualify for future spaceflights).

The astronauts and ground personnel followed a complicated set of procedures to practice safety in the event of a sudden emergency on the pad, such as a rocket explosion. Such an event could offer only seconds to respond, so practicing everything ahead of time is necessary. During the drill, participants donned portable respirators and practiced moving from the crew access arm on the spacecraft, which is nearly 200 feet (60 meters) high, toward a zip line, which they slid down  to a staging location on the ground. 

Once everyone reached the ground safely, they rushed inside a vehicle designed to withstand any debris from a disaster. The team drove the so-called mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle almost a mile (1.6 kilometers) to a helipad, where flight surgeons and emergency personnel were ready with ambulances and a decontamination vehicle.

Emergency response personnel surround an astronaut with simulated injuries during an exercise conducted by NASA, Boeing and United Launch Alliance on July 24, 2019.  (Image credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky)

"Astronauts evacuating from a pad emergency may come into contact with hazardous substances, such as fuel from the rocket or spacecraft, and must be decontaminated to allow medical personnel to safely treat them. In a true emergency, anyone injured would then be transported via helicopter to area hospitals," NASA said in a statement about the Boeing exercise.

Another practice exercise focused on recovery operations with SpaceX, using a ship called "GO Searcher," which is one of the vessels that will pick up spacecraft and astronauts splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean after a mission. In this exercise, the teams simulated that Behnken and Hurley needed to be extracted from Crew Dragon. The astronauts were removed and received a mock medical evaluation before they were transported to a nearby airport, the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Skid Strip. 

"We're making sure that the team integrates together — that's a key to any successful mission," Ted Mosteller, the NASA recovery director in charge of the agency's team for the Commercial Crew Program, said in a statement concerning the recovery operations. "We worked on successfully doing what we need to do to take care of the crew once they return to Earth."

In the same statement, Behnken said he is looking forward to his opportunity for spaceflight and returning to the ISS. "Each of these exercises puts us one step closer to fulfilling NASA's mission of returning astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil," he added. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: