General Overview

SCIFLI has been supporting SpaceX missions since 2010. In preparation for a launch, the team provides contingency planning in the event of an unexpected early end to a mission. During landing, we ensure the safety of the crew and vessel by documenting the landing sequence of these spacecraft, including the deployment of the parachutes. Although each one has particular challenges, SCIFLI provides similar support for most SpaceX missions. The WB-57 is deployed to image the spacecraft from the air. Capturing both the infrared and visual spectrums, the unique high-altitude aircraft would also help with search and rescue efforts in the event of a malfunction on landing. As SpaceX capsules land in water, SCIFLI coordinates with SpaceX ground imaging teams on nearby boats. One of SCIFLI’s secondary objectives is to help with parachute recovery after splashdown. The parachutes can be difficult to find after they drift underwater, but the WB-57 can identify and help to retrieve them using its infrared camera. Not only is SCIFLI an important avenue for data collection in these missions, their efforts are also essential in protecting the crews and vessels.

Parachute Testing

Between 2017 and 2020, SCIFLI conducted observations of over forty separate tests of the parachute systems used on SpaceX’s crew and cargo Dragon capsules. Several of these observations followed a common format, but many took place under unique circumstances, such as the high-altitude balloon drops. All of the operations took place in remote desert locations throughout the west and southwest. The mass or model capsule used in the test would be transported to an appropriate height by an aircraft, or in some cases by a high-altitude balloon, and released. SCIFLI would coordinate the required imagery through use of assets such as MARS Scientific Ground Systems or the WB-57 aircraft and would deliver the product to SpaceX. The team was able to make available extremely high-resolution imagery almost immediately following each of these tests, allowing engineers to review and confirm events in near real time. These missions required considerable logistical efforts and schedule flexibility on the part of SCIFLI and resulted in the delivery of many terabytes of useful data to SpaceX.

Uncrewed Missions

Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) are cargo missions carried out by SpaceX with the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon Cargo Capsule. SCIFLI has worked with SpaceX and NASA over a period of 8 years to provide imagery of launch and/or recovery sequences on CRS-3, CRS-4, CRS-16, CRS-17, CRS-18, and CRS-21­CRS-24. SCIFLI plans to support CRS-26 this coming October. We are pleased to say that, with the exception of weather restrictions, these observations were all successful and resulted in the delivery of useful data to SpaceX. Much like the crewed missions, the parachute deployment and reentry sequence are of particular interest as SCIFLI imaging targets. Typically, SCIFLI will partner with the WB-57 team to image the reentry and provide support for the unlikely event that an early end to a mission is required. The team also adjusts the kind of images taken based on the lighting conditions; for daylight reentries, visual images are taken, while night conditions may require the collection of images in the mid-wave infrared (MWIR) spectrum instead.

Crewed Missions

With the success of the Demo-2 mission in 2020, SpaceX had the distinction of launching the first astronauts from US soil since the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. The company has continued to send crewed missions to the ISS since then, such as the notable Inspiration 4 which was the first all-civilian flight to space. SCIFLI has supported each of these missions, providing planning in the event of an unexpected early end to the mission and carefully documenting the reentry with visual, infrared, and live streaming video. This live stream has particular importance, especially since there is a communications blackout of about 7 minutes as spacecraft enter the atmosphere. The captain of the Crew-1 mission, Mike “Hopper” Hopkins, asked for SCIFLI’s support specifically, mentioning how impactful it would be for his family to watch the capsule’s reentry in real-time. This, along with the documentation of the capsule’s parachutes and the WB-57’s availability for search and rescue, makes SCIFLI a key part of ensuring the safety of SpaceX’s astronauts.