NASA, SpaceX Released Playable Crew Dragon Space Flight Simulator

NASA and SpaceX will soon launch the first crewed mission launched from the U.S. in nearly a decade, and now we can try the same docking simulator real Crew Dragon astronauts use.
Brad Bergan

SpaceX has released an immersive docking simulator used to train astronauts Behnken and Hurley for their forthcoming launch aboard the Crew Dragon — the first human spaceflight to launch from U.S. soil in nearly a decade — for public use, according to a NASA tweet. The public and private space agencies have also declared the Crew Dragon and Crew Spacesuits ready for the Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station (ISS), according to a blog post on NASA's website.


NASA, SpaceX ready to launch amid release of astronaut training simulator

After loading SpaceX's simulator website, the intro preps virtual astronauts, saying: "This simulator will familiarize you with the controls of actual interface used by NASA Astronauts to manually pilot the SpaceX Dragon 2 vehicle to the International Space Station. Successful docking is achieved when all green numbers in the center of the interface are below 0.2. Movement in space is slow and requires patience & precision," reads the concise primer before an enticing "BEGIN" button.

Notably, the SpaceX simulator included a "flat Earth" Easter egg, hidden in the settings.

SpaceX Crew Dragon Flat Earth
Below the familiar solar panels of the orbiting (floating?) ISS spins the vast (fictional!) "flat" Earth. Source: Docking Simulator / SpaceX 

SpaceX astronaut equipment features

In the blog post, NASA describes its work with SpaceX through simulations with astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken who are due to fly the Crew Dragon mission — dubbed Demo-2 — later this month to the ISS in a bid to jump-start NASA's Commercial Crew Program.

The spacesuit is tailor-made for each passenger aboard the Crew Dragon, and is optimized for functionality, lightweight, and maximized protection from potential spacecraft depressurization. One connection point on the suit's thigh connects the astronaut to life-support systems like air and electrical power.

The helmet is also custom-made via 3D printing technology and features integrated valves, mechanisms for crisp visor retraction and locking, and microphones buried inside the helmet's structure. Each spacesuit also has touchscreen-compatible gloves, a flame-resisting outer layer, and creates a pressurized environment with a controlled environment for the crew to use in unusual situations like cabin depressurization.

The spacesuits even feature routes communications and cooling systems, which the astronauts may access at any time during the flight.

SpaceX Crew Dragon Near ISS
Making a pass of the ISS in SpaceX's Crew Dragon docking simulator. Source: Docking Simulator / SpaceX

The Crew Dragon docking simulator

The Crew Dragon system includes touch screens and toggles for manual control with "robust fault tolerance" built-in. The touch screens have been tuned to work both with and without SpaceX spacesuit gloves and have been vetted thoroughly through hundreds of hours of training and joint simulations to prove full functionality over the full operating range of the spacecraft. While Crew Dragon is programmed to autonomously dock and undock with the ISS, the onboard astronauts may take manual control if necessary.

We did.

SpaceX Crew Dragon Docking Simulator
Interesting Engineering sets out for the ISS. Source: Docking Simulator / SpaceX

And we very quickly rediscovered Newton's first law of motion, which in broad strokes defines how an object in motion stays in motion unless an external force is enacted upon it. Between what seems to be the main thrust control on the left toggles and the directional thrust on the right, it at first seems like there's a long way to go to dock with the ISS.

With enough speed, the virtual Crew Dragon makes the journey in little more than a minute (note well: not an official estimate) — but there's a problem. Having gained so much velocity and quickly approaching the ISS, there's not enough time — or distance — to slow the spacecraft down enough to dock. One wrong move and the virtual spacecraft will miss the space station entirely — we snapped a picture of a near-miss, to show how not to dock the Crew Dragon:

SpaceX Crew Dragon Near Miss
You could say our first flyby of the ISS was not ideal. Source: Docking Simulator / SpaceX

On Crew Dragon docking simulator, turtles beat rabbits

Flying in space is very different than flying in the air, let alone driving a Tesla. Beyond the obvious, there's no friction from the street or air resistance on wings, which means all momentum relative to the space station won't change unless the pilot changes it with thrusters.

Approach too fast, and the craft's greater velocity will need reverse thrust to slow down — which takes distance and risks collision with the space station. Leave the pitch or yaw thrusters on for too long, and the spacecraft will begin spinning. Notably, this can and does cause vertigo.

As SpaceX and NASA approach their May 27 launch date for Demo-2 — the first U.S. launch of astronauts in nearly a decade — it's clear that in low-Earth orbit, it's best to move like a turtle, and not rush in like the proverbial hare.

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