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Watch live: Spacewalkers work to prep space station for future upgrades

STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION

Space station commander Chris Cassidy and Robert Behnken floated back outside Tuesday for their fourth spacewalk in less than a month, this one to complete preparations for future upgrades including the eventual installation of an airlock that will allow commercial experiments to be moved into and out of vacuum as required.

The astronauts originally planned four spacewalks to install replacement batteries in the station’s solar power system, but that work was completed ahead of schedule during three excursions on June 26, July 1 and July 16. The fourth spacewalk was replanned as a result and now includes a variety of unrelated tasks.

Floating in the Quest airlock, Cassidy and Behnken switched their spacesuits to battery power at 7:12 a.m. EDT to officially kick off a planned six-and-a-half-hour spacewalk, the 231st in station history, the seventh so far this year and the 10th for both astronauts.

The first item on the agenda was to install a robotics tool box on a rail-mounted carrier used to move the station’s robot arm from one worksite to another.

After that, Behnken planned to move to the lab’s right-side inboard set of solar arrays to remove a no-longer-needed handling, or “H,” fixtures, one of several that were used to lift and move the stowed arrays before launch. Cassidy planned to detach a second fixture on the far right side of the power truss.

All of them must be removed to make way for future power system upgrades. Behnken attempted to remove the first fixture during the July 16 spacewalk, but he was unable to pull it free. Engineers then developed new procedures and tools, including a 3D-printed wedge, that were expected to help the crew pull off the two fixtures.

Cassidy and Behnken then planned to make their way to the left side of the power truss to prepare the outer hatch of the Tranquility module — the same compartment that features the station’s multi-window cupola — for the later attachment of a commercial airlock.

The Bishop Airlock, designed by Nanoracks as a commercial venture, is scheduled for launch later this year aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship. Once in place, the airlock will enable research payloads and equipment to be robotically moved into and out of the space station, exposing them to the space environment as required.

The airlock will be attached to the Tranquility module’s currently unoccupied outboard port. To make way for installation, Cassidy and Behnken planned to remove a thermal cover and protective shields, reposition a variety of cables and clean the common berthing mechanism’s attachment fittings.

Once the airlock preps are complete, Cassidy and Behnken will wrap up the day’s work by routing camera power and data cables and removing a damaged lens filter from an external camera assembly.

Assuming the spacewalk runs the full six-and-a-half hours, Behnken will move up to No. 3 on the list of most-experienced spacewalkers with more than 62 hours of EVA time 10 excursions. Cassidy’s mark will stand at nearly 56 hours, moving him up to eighth on the list.

With the spacewalk complete, the station crew will turn its attention to the launch and docking of a Russian Progress supply ship Thursday. The next major task after that will be preparations for Behnken and Douglas Hurley to return to Earth aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceship that carried them into orbit May 30.

The Crew Dragon, developed as a commercial venture, is the first piloted U.S. orbital since the final shuttle flight in 2011. Hurley and Behnken plan to undock from the station’s forward port the evening of Aug. 1 and to splash down in the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean off Florida’s east coast on Aug. 2 to close out a 64-day flight.

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Watch live: Spacewalk begins for another round of space station battery swap outs

STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION

Now in the home stretch of a complex, multi-year upgrade, two space station astronauts floated outside the lab complex Thursday and pressed ahead with the third of four spacewalks the current crew is carrying out to complete the replacement of aging batteries in the station’s solar power system.

Station commander Chris Cassidy and astronaut Robert Behnken began the excursion at 7:10 a.m. EDT, switching their spacesuits to battery power while still inside the Quest airlock. That officially kicked off the 230th spacewalk, or EVA, since ISS assembly began in 1998, the sixth so far this year and the 11th devoted to battery replacement work since 2017.

For identification, Behnken, call sign EV-1, is wearing a suit with red stripes while Cassidy, EV-2, is using an unmarked suit.

After checking safety tethers and collecting tools, the astronauts headed for the far right end of the lab’s power truss to continue work started during spacewalks June 26 and July 1 to replace 12 older nickel-hydrogen batteries at the base of the outboard set of solar arrays with six more powerful lithium-ion power packs.

The space station is equipped with four huge solar wings, two at each end of the power truss, that feed electricity into eight power distribution channels. Twelve nickel-hydrogen batteries at the base of each wing, six per power channel, keep the station functioning when it’s in orbital darkness.

Starting in January 2017, astronauts began replacing the old batteries with more powerful lithium-ion units. Because they are more efficient, only six lithium-ion batteries are needed at the base of each solar wing, along with circuit completing adapter plates to take the place of batteries that were removed but not replaced.

During spacewalks in 2017 and 2019, spacewalking astronauts replaced all 24 nickel-hydrogen batteries used by the left and right inboard arrays. The left-side outboard solar wing was upgraded during spacewalks in 2019 and earlier this year, leaving just the right-side outboard set — 12 batteries feeding two power channels — for Cassidy and Behnken.

They completed the battery work for one power channel during their two earlier spacewalks.

During Thursday’s outing, they planned to remove five of the six remaining nickel-hydrogen batteries and to install all three of the remaining lithium-ion units, along with a final three adapter plates. They also planned to install a high-definition camera boom on the power truss.

Two of the new batteries should be connected by the end of the spacewalk. The final new battery will be tied into the power channel next week, after the last nickel-hydrogen battery is removed.

NASA planners originally thought the battery work would take two spacewalks per power channel, but Cassidy and Behnken ran well ahead of schedule during their first two EVAs and most of the battery work was expected to be completed Thursday.

During next week’s spacewalk, the astronauts plan to finish the battery work; make preparations for installation of a commercial research airlock; install a tool storage box; and remove two of six no-longer-needed ground-handling fixtures at the base of the solar wings to clear the way for future upgrades.

Assuming the final two spacewalks run exactly six-and-a-half-hours each as planned, Behnken will move up to third on the list of most experienced spacewalkers with 62 hours and 41 minutes of EVA time over 10 outings. Cassidy’s 10-spacewalk mark will stand at 56 hours and 22 minutes, moving him up to eighth in the world.

Cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev holds the all-time spacewalk record with 78 hours and 21 minutes over 16 EVAs. Retired astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria is second with 67 hours and 40 minutes over 10 excursions.

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Behnken describes spacewalk views of Crew Dragon as “just awesome”

In this image taken July 1, a spacewalking astronaut snapped a view of the Crew Dragon spacecraft (at right) docked with the International Space Station. Japan’s HTV cargo ship, at bottom in gold, is also seen attached to the space station. Credit: NASA

NASA astronaut Bob Behnken, now in the second half of his mission to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship, glimpsed the commercial crew capsule from a unique viewpoint at the far end of the station’s solar power truss during a pair of recent spacewalks.

Behnken joined space station Expedition 63 commander Chris Cassidy on two spacewalks June 26 and July 1 to replace aging batteries on the far right side of the research lab’s truss structure, which spans the length of a football field tip-to-tip.

The astronauts got expansive views of the space station from their work site. “Not bad for a view while working,” Behnken tweeted.

In a series of media interviews last week, Behnken said the spacewalks marked the highlight of his mission, at least since he arrived at the International Space Station with crewmate Doug Hurley on the first crewed test flight of SpaceX’s privately-owned Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Behnken and Hurley docked with the space station May 31, a day after launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Their historic flight is the first to use a commercial vehicle to carry astronauts into Earth orbit, and the launch was the first time astronauts rocketed into orbit from U.S. soil since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011.

In response to questions from the Washington Post, Behnken said it was “just awesome to be able to look back and snap a picture” of the Crew Dragon spacecraft during the spacewalks.

This view taken by a spacewalking astronaut July 1 shows SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft docked with the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

In photos taken from inside the space station, the Crew Dragon is partially obstructed at its docking port on the forward end of the Harmony module. Looking back at the gumdrop-shaped capsule from the edge of the space station’s truss gave the astronauts a different perspective.

The photos also showed Japan’s HTV barrel-shaped cargo freighter berthed on the bottom side of the space station. The HTV stands out in the images because of the golden color of its thermal insulation.

The HTV delivered the six upgraded lithium-ion batteries being installed by Cassidy and Behnken on a series of spacewalks. The two astronauts are gearing up for two more spacewalks later this month, before Behnken and Hurley are scheduled to strap into the Crew Dragon and return to Earth around Aug. 2.

The spacewalks June 26, July 1 and later this month will complete an upgrade of the space station’s power storage system that has stretched over several years. A series of HTV missions have delivered new batteries to the outpost, and astronauts have swapped old nickel-hydrogen batteries for the more capable lithium-ion units, which NASA says will keep the battery system healthy through at least the rest of this decade.

The nickel-hydrogen batteries were launched with the solar power modules on space shuttle missions from 2000 through 2009.

During the June 26 and July 1 spacewalks, Cassidy and Behnken completed work to replace batteries in one of two power channels fed by the solar arrays on the far starboard side of the station’s structural truss. With that complete, seven of the eight solar power channels overall have received new lithium-ion batteries.

The excursions later this month will swap batteries on the eighth and final power channel.

This view taken by a spacewalking astronaut July 1 shows SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft docked with the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Behnken told reporters last week that the Crew Dragon spacecraft is performing well more than a month into its mission at the space station. The capsule’s thermal control system is functioning normally, and its computers are weathering the radiation present in low Earth orbit.

“I think that’s the thing that really gives Doug (Hurley) and I continued confidence in the vehicle is that it is matching the engineering predictions for all of those things,” Behnken said.

Future Crew Dragon missions will last up to seven months, and NASA has approved the Crew Dragon test flight, designated Demo-2, to remain in orbit for up to four months. But NASA officials plan to bring Hurley and Behnken back to Earth around Aug. 2, starting a series of data and certification reviews expected to last around six weeks before the deeming the Crew Dragon ready for operational crew rotation flights to the space station.

Three NASA astronauts and a Japanese astronaut are assigned to the first operational Crew Dragon mission, which is expected to launch from the Kennedy Space Center as soon as mid-September.

More photos from the June 26 and July 1 spacewalks are posted below.

NASA astronaut Bob Behnken is pictured outside the International Space Station on a spacewalk June 26. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Bob Behnken works outside the space station during a June 26 spacewalk. Credit: NASA
Backdropped by a space station solar array, NASA astronaut Bob Behnken works on the station truss in a July 1 spacewalk. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy is seen inside the space station’s Quest airlock during a July 1 spacewalk. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Bob Behnken outside the space station on a July 1 spacewalk. Credit: NASA

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Spacewalkers begin another round of battery replacement work

STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION

Picking up where they left off last week, two space station astronauts ventured back outside the outpost Wednesday to continue the replacement of aging batteries in the lab’s solar power system. Two more spacewalks later this month should complete the multi-year project.

Station commander Chris Cassidy and Crew Dragon astronaut Robert Behnken, floating in the Quest airlock, switched their spacesuits to battery power at 7:13 a.m. EDT to kick off their second spacewalk in five days, the 229th in station history and the eighth overall for both astronauts.

After checking safety tethers and collecting their tools, the astronauts floated outside and headed to the far right end of the space station’s power truss for another round of battery replacement work.

The space station is equipped with four huge solar array wings, each one feeding electricity into two circuits, or power channels. Each of the eight power channels originally included six nickel-hydrogen batteries — 48 in all — to provide electricity when the station is in orbital darkness.

But the original batteries are wearing out, and NASA is in the process of replacing all 48 with 24 more powerful lithium-ion power packs and circuit-completing adapter plates to take the place of batteries that were removed but not replaced.

During spacewalks in 2017, 2019 and in January this year, 36 old batteries in three of the four sets of solar arrays were replaced. Cassidy and Behnken are working to replace a final set in the station’s right-side outboard arrays.

Last Friday, they removed five of the six nickel-hydrogen batteries in one of the outboard power channels and installed two of three lithium-ion batteries and two of three adapter plates in their place.

During Wednesday’s work, they planned to finish power channel 1B and to loosen bolts securing batteries in power channel 3B. Before calling it a day, the astronauts planned to route cables for a new wireless communications system and to remove a no-longer-needed fixture on the power truss.

If all goes well, Cassidy and Behnken will venture back outside later this month to continue the battery swap outs for the final power channel, 3B. A fourth spacewalk is expected after that to finally finish the job.

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Cassidy, Behnken begin final series of space station battery upgrades

STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION

Astronauts Chris Cassidy and Bob Behnken work outside the International Space Station on Friday. Credit: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now

Two astronauts floated outside the International Space Station early Friday for the first of four planned spacewalks to wrap up a complex multi-year job to replace 48 aging batteries in the lab’s solar power system with 24 more powerful lithium-ion units.

Getting off to a fast start, Chris Cassidy and Robert Behnken ran well ahead of schedule throughout the day, completing all of their planned tasks and starting work originally planned for the next spacewalk in the series next Wednesday.

“I think we’ve done enough for one day,” one of the spacewalkers quipped before heading back to the airlock to wrap up a six-hour seven-minute excursion.

The battery replacement work began in January 2017 and based on Friday’s results, the astronauts should be able to complete the work next month, ensuring smooth, reliable power distribution through the rest of the decade if not beyond.

“I think it’s safe to say, barring any unforeseen type of failures, we’ll be good on batteries for a number of years to come,” said Kenny Todd, deputy space station program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “The longevity of the new technology batteries gets us well out through what will most likely be the end of the program.”

Floating in the Quest airlock module, Cassidy and Behnken switched their spacesuits to battery power at 7:32 a.m. EDT to officially kick off the 228th EVA in station history, the fourth so far this year and the seventh for both astronauts.

Assisting with the lab’s robot arm from inside the station were Douglas Hurley, Behnken’s crewmate aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon ferry ship that carried them to orbit last month, and cosmonaut Ivan Vagner, who launched aboard a Soyuz on April 9 with Cassidy and cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin.

Floating out of the airlock, Cassidy reported that a small wrist mirror, used to help him read spacesuit displays that cannot be seen directly, had somehow worked loose and drifted away at about a half a mile per hour. Tipping the scales at just a tenth of a pound, the lost mirror posed no threat to the station or the crew, and in any case Cassidy had a spare.

NASA is wrapping up the replacement of all 48 of the space station’s older-generation nickel-hydrogen batteries with 24 smaller-yet-more-powerful lithium-ion units, along with circuit-completing “adapter plates” to fill in for batteries that were removed but not replaced. The adapter plates also provide long-term storage locations for several of the old batteries.

The new batteries are arranged in sets of six in integrated electronics assemblies, or IEAs, at the bases of the station’s four main solar array wings. Each wing is made up of two extendable blankets of solar cells and the electricity they generate is delivered throughout the station using eight electrical buses, or channels, two per IEA.

Batteries in each IEA store power generated when the arrays are exposed to sunlight and then provide the electricity needed to keep the station operating during the lab’s passes through Earth’s shadow.

The inboard right-side arrays are part of the starboard 4, or S4, truss segment, providing power to channels 1A and 3A. The inboard left-side arrays are part of the port 4, or P4, truss segment supplying power to channels 2A and 4A.

In 2017, spacewalkers replaced the 12 inboard S4 solar array batteries with six lithium-ion units and in March 2019, the 12 inboard P4 batteries were replaced by another six LiOH batteries.

For all of those replacements, the station’s robot arm had the reach necessary to assist the astronauts with battery relocations and unbolting and only four spacewalks were required. The outboard arrays and batteries pose a more difficult challenge.

During two spacewalks last October and another two more this past January, spacewalkers replaced the batteries at the far left end of the station’s truss — P6 — for power channels 2B and 4B. The batteries in channel 4B were installed during NASA’s second and third all-female spacewalks.

Because the outboard work site is so far from the robot arm’s outermost anchor point, four spacewalks were required because the astronauts had to manually move batteries back and forth between a storage pallet and the integrated electronics assembly where they were installed.

Cassidy and Behnken plan to carry out four essentially identical spacewalks to replace the 12 nickel-hydrogen batteries in the outboard right-side set of arrays with six lithium-ion units, three powering channel 1B and three used by channel 3B.

During Friday’s excursion, the astronauts removed five of the six older-generation batteries in the 1B circuit, installed two new batteries and two adapter plates. During next week’s spacewalk, the final nickel-hydrogen battery in the 1B circuit will be removed and a third lithium-ion unit will be installed along with one more adapter plate.

During two spacewalks next month, Cassidy and Behnken plan to replace the batteries in power channel 3B.

But those spacewalks will depend in part on how the first two go and the status of plans to bring Behnken and Hurley back to Earth in the Crew Dragon ferry ship around Aug. 2. If problems crop up, the final two spacewalks could be deferred and carried out by a future station crew.

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Astronauts gear up for spacewalks amid planning for August Crew Dragon return

STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION

NASA astronauts Chris Cassidy and Bob Behnken work with their spacesuits ahead of the first in a series of spacewalks scheduled for Friday. Credit: NASA

Space station commander Chris Cassidy and Robert Behnken plan to float outside Friday for the first of up to four spacewalks needed to complete the replacement of aging batteries in the lab’s solar power system. NASA managers hope to get the work done in time for Behnken and crewmate Douglas Hurley to return to Earth aboard their Crew Dragon capsule by around Aug. 2, officials said Wednesday.

When the SpaceX capsule blasted off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket May 30, NASA managers had not specified a return date. But flight controllers now are “looking at landing in the early August timeframe,” Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, told reporters during a spacewalk preview teleconference.

“The earliest would be around the 2nd of August,” he added. “We’re working those opportunities with the space station program.”

An early August splashdown for the SpaceX capsule would give engineers time to thoroughly evaluate the spacecraft’s first piloted test flight, known as Demo 2, before clearing the decks for an operational, full-duration mission with four astronauts in the mid-September timeframe. That flight is known as the Crew-1 mission.

“Right now, we think we need about six weeks of time to review all the data from the landing and the undocking, and then go through the review process to get to the Crew One launch,” Stich said. “So there’s kind of a six-week iron bar, if you will, between the Demo-2 landing and the Crew-1 launch, and that’s going to be a factor as we look at launch dates later on for Crew-1.”

Since docking at the space station the day after launch, the Crew Dragon has spent most of its time powered down in a sort of electronic hibernation. But flight controllers wake it up every Wednesday to collect engineering data and evaluate its performance. So far, 25 days into its mission, the capsule is performing in near flawless fashion.

One question mark going into the flight was how the spacecraft’s solar cells might be affected by atomic oxygen in the space environment. Engineers expected their performance to degrade over time but as it turns out, the system has been performing above pre-flight predictions.

“The vehicle is doing extremely well,” Stich said. “We’re learning a lot about the vehicle. Nothing that’s of any concern, learning how to manage the systems, the heaters and thermal performance as we go through the changes in the orbit. Also, we’ve been watching the power generation (and) Dragon’s generating more power than we expected.”

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station on May 31 with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on-board. Credit: NASA

Hurley and Behnken will end their mission with NASA’s first ocean splashdown since the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975. Going into the flight, NASA was focused on landing zones off Cape Canaveral or Jacksonville with a backup site in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola.

Stich said mission managers now are evaluating additional sites off Panama City, Tallahassee, Tampa and Daytona Beach to provide more options in the event of stormy tropical weather.

The Crew Dragon carries enough on-board supplies for about three days of flight after leaving the space station. Stich said depending on when the ship actually departs and which landing site is selected, the trip home could be as short as six hours or could stretch to a full day or even longer.

“It looks like the first opportunity to undock and come home would be around Aug. 2,” Stich said. “We’ll just have to sort of see how the EVAs go.”

The space station’s four huge solar wings feed power into eight electrical channels, originally relying on 48 nickel-hydrogen batteries, six per power channel, to supply electricity when the station is not in direct sunlight.

In a multi-year project, spacewalking astronauts have replaced 36 of the 48 older batteries, installing 18 smaller and more efficient lithium-ion powerpacks and circuit-completing adapter plates in their place.

Behnken and Cassidy, who launched to the station April 9 aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, plan two spacewalks, one Friday and the second next Wednesday, to install three of the final six new batteries and adapter plates in power channel 1B and to store the six batteries they will replace. Two more EVAs will be needed to install the final three batteries in channel 3B.

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NASA anticipates August return for Hurley and Behnken

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station for docking May 31. Credit: NASA

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft will likely return to Earth in August to wrap up a test flight to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, a senior space agency official said Tuesday.

The exact schedule for Hurley and Behnken’s return to Earth will hinge on several factors, such as the performance of their Crew Dragon spaceship, the progress of their work on the space station, and weather conditions in the capsule’s landing zones in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, according to Ken Bowersox, the acting associate administrator for NASA’s human exploration and operations mission directorate.

Bowersox said Tuesday that the Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 mission — the first SpaceX mission to carry astronauts — is proceeding as planned, and the crew capsule is performing well since its launch on a Falcon 9 rocket May 30 from the Kennedy Space Center and docking with the space station one day later.

The successful liftoff of the Crew Dragon marked the end of a nearly nine-year gap in launches of astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil following the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011.

Before the launch, NASA officials said the Crew Dragon test flight could last from one to four months, depending on a range of technical and weather factors.

“We didn’t prescribe the length of the Demo-2 mission until we got the crew on orbit and we could see the performance of the Dragon,” Bowersox said Tuesday. “The Dragon is doing very well, so we think it’s reasonable for the crew to stay up there a month or two. The actual details are still being worked out.”

Bowersox took over as acting head of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts last month after the abrupt resignation of Doug Loverro, who served in the role for six months before leaving the agency. Industry sources have said Loverro broke NASA procurement rules during a contract competition earlier this year for federal funding to support the development of new human-rated landers to carry astronauts to the lunar surface.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft that launched with Hurley and Behnken was certified to fly in space for up to four months. The limiting factor on the spacecraft’s endurance is the degradation of the ship’s power-generating solar arrays in the harsh environment of low Earth orbit.

NASA is now looking at bringing Hurley and Behnken back to Earth in late July or some time in August.

Bowersox discussed the plans Tuesday in a briefing during a joint meeting of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Space Studies Board and the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board.

Behnken is expected to perform at least two spacewalks in late June and early July with space station commander Chris Cassidy, who launched in April on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The duo will replace batteries on the far starboard end of the space station’s solar power truss, installing fresh power packs delivered by a Japanese HTV cargo craft last month.

Hurley will operate the space station’s Canadian-built robotic arm during the spacewalks. The arrival of Hurley and Behnken on May 31 ended a six-week period when Cassidy was the only U.S. astronaut on the space station, limiting the crew’s capability to perform experiments, repairs and other required maintenance activities.

“It is very likely that by the end of July, we will have conducted some spacewalks with Chris Cassidy and Bob Behnken, replaced some batteries on the ISS, and we’ll — about two months from now — start thinking about bringing Bob and Doug home,” said Bowersox, a former astronaut and SpaceX executive. “We’d like to get them home some time in August.”

But if weather conditions look favorable, NASA and SpaceX might elect to have the Crew Dragon undock from the station and return to Earth before the end of July, sources said.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken (left and right) brief ground teams on their trip to the space station aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Alongside their work to assist Cassidy with regular space station operations, Hurley and Behnken are also helping SpaceX ground teams continue their assessment of the Crew Dragon’s performance. Mission controllers planned to place the Dragon capsule into a hibernation mode, then wake up the ship’s systems to verify the spacecraft can perform its role as a quick-response lifeboat to scurry astronauts back to Earth in the event of an emergency.

Mission managers are also checking data to monitor the status of the solar arrays.

Bowersox said strict wind limits for the Crew Dragon spacecraft flying the Demo-2 mission — named “Endeavour” by Hurley and Behnken — will also come into play as NASA and SpaceX plan the return schedule. In some cases, the wind limit for splashdown could be as low as 9 knots.

“The Demo-2 vehicle has a little bit tighter restrictions on its landing wind requirements, so we’ll need to provide extra lead time for the weather possibilities, but I think it will all work out in August,” Bowersox said. “August is often a light wind month in the parts of the Gulf (of Mexico) and the east coast of Florida that we’re looking at landing, so I think we’ll be able to find a good opportunity in there.”

But officials have not set a target date for the landing. That will wait until later in the mission, once Behnken and Cassidy complete their spacewalks.

“We don’t want to try to pin things down to too hard of a date or too hard of a time,” Bowersox said. “We want to pick the conditions that are right for this first return of the Crew Dragon with crew on-board.”

A few hours after departing the space station, the Crew Dragon will fire its Draco thrusters for a braking burn and re-enter the atmosphere, targeting a parachute-assisted splashdown at sea. The landing zones are located roughly 24 nautical miles, or 27 statute miles, off the east coast of Florida, with a backup site in the Gulf of Mexico south of Pensacola.

The Demo-2 test flight is a precursor to operational crew rotation missions to the space station using the Crew Dragon spacecraft. The first of the operational Crew Dragon missions, known as Crew-1, is scheduled for launch no earlier than Aug. 30 from the Kennedy Space Center.

NASA has ordered six crew rotation flights on the Crew Dragon spacecraft through 2024, each carrying four astronauts to and from the space station on expeditions lasting as long as 210 days. SpaceX also has agreements with Axiom Space and Space Adventures, two commercial space companies, to fly private citizens into orbit on shorter-duration Crew Dragon missions beginning as soon as late 2021.

SpaceX developed the Crew Dragon under contract to NASA, but the company is free to use the spacecraft for commercial flights without NASA involvement.

NASA has a similar contract with Boeing for development of the Starliner crew capsule, which has yet to fly with astronauts. An unpiloted Starliner test flight was cut short before docking with the space station in December, and Boeing plans to fly a second demonstration mission later this year before a test flight with a crew on-board in early 2021.

Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, said May 31 that space agency managers will evaluate the readiness of the next Crew Dragon spacecraft — for the Crew-1 mission — before deciding when to bring Hurley and Behnken home.

“Not only are we looking at this particular vehicle, we’re also looking ahead to Crew-1,” Stich said. “That’s an important mission for us. It has four crew (members). It really is what commercial crew is about — having the vehicle ready to do these increment missions … Right now, it’s targeting toward being launch-ready at the end of August timeframe. So we’ll just kind of continue to look at this vehicle. Is it performing well? We’ll look at the readiness of that vehicle, and in a month or so, we’ll be able to make a decision as to how long to keep this vehicle in orbit.”

NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi are training for the Crew-1 mission. The Crew-1 flight will only launch after the return of the Demo-2 mission, and a subsequent review of data from the Crew Dragon test flight.

While the spacecraft for the Demo-2 mission came with a four-month certified mission lifetime, the Dragon for the Crew-1 flight will be certified for a full-duration 210-day mission, according to NASA.

Stich said there are several modifications to the capsule SpaceX is building for the Crew-1 mission, although major components such as the capsule’s life support system and guidance, navigation and control systems are largely unchanged.

“The Crew-1 vehicle can land in a little bit higher wind state,” Stich said. SpaceX has changed some of the outer composite panels to make that a little stronger.”

“It also has the capability not only dock to the forward port of the space station, but it can go to the zenith (space-facing) port as well, so it has that capability, and it has a couple other features,” Stich said.

The space station has two docking ports outfitted to receive Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft. Once the Crew Dragon and Starliner vehicles are operational, NASA expects both ports will be used simultaneously to accommodate visiting crew and cargo ships.

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aerospace astronomy bob behnken Chris Cassidy Commercial Crew Commercial Space Crew Dragon Crew Dragon Demo-2 doug hurley elon musk Expedition 63 falcon 9 Human Spaceflight international space station kennedy space center Launch Launch Pad 39A Mission Reports nasa News space station spacex X Home Page Highlight

Making history, astronauts ride commercial capsule to space station

Russian flight engineer Ivan Vagner tweeted this picture of the newly-enlarged Expedition 63 crew Sunday on the International Space Station. Behnken and Hurley are seeing black shirts. Credit: Ivan Vagner/Roscosmos

A Crew Dragon spaceship built and owned by SpaceX glided to an automated docking with the International Space Station Sunday, delivering NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the orbiting research complex after a trouble-free 19-hour flight from the Kennedy Space Center.

The gumdrop-shaped capsule, named Endeavour by Hurley and Behnken in honor of NASA’s retired space shuttle, linked up with a docking adapter on the space station’s Harmony module at 10:16 a.m. EDT (1416 GMT) Sunday. Running a few minutes early, the crew capsule docked in autopilot mode after Hurley tested the ship’s manual touchscreen flight controls on its approach to the space station.

The docking marked the first time a commercial spacecraft has carried astronauts to the International Space Station, a landmark accomplishment for NASA as the U.S. space agency looks to commercialize transportation to and from Earth orbit.

The Dragon crew capsule launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 3:22 p.m. EDT (1922 GMT) Saturday from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. It was the first crew flight on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket after 84 flights of SpaceX’s workhorse launcher.

A few minutes after the initial contact, the docking ring retracted and 12 hooks closed to make a firm connection between the Dragon spacecraft and the space station. A set of power and data umbilicals also mated through the docking adapter to route electricity and communications between the station and Crew Dragon.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft docked at the International Space Station on Sunday. Credit: NASA TV / Spaceflight Now

Mission control radioed the Dragon crew at the conclusion of the automated docking sequence.

“We copy, docking complete,” Hurley said. “It’s been a real honor to be just a small part of this nine-year endeavor since the last time a United States (crew) spaceship has docked with the International Space Station.

“We have to congratulate the men and women of SpaceX at Hawthorne, McGregor and at Kennedy Space Center for incredible efforts over the last several years to make this possible,” he said. “It cannot go overstated.”

Hurley also thanked engineers from NASA’s commercial crew program, which has overseen development of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule, which has not yet flown in space with astronauts.

“This is an incredible time to be at NASA (with) three new vehicles to be flown continuing the mission in low Earth orbit, and then to the moon and Mars,” Hurley said, referring to the Dragon, Starliner and NASA’s Orion capsule designed for trips farther from Earth.

Chris Cassidy, commander of the space station’s Expedition 63 crew, rang the ship’s bell to welcome the SpaceX crew capsule.

“Dragon, arriving,” Cassidy said. “The crew of Expedition 63 is honored to welcome Dragon and the commercial crew program … aboard the International Space Station. Bob and Doug, glad to have you part of the crew.”

After a series of pressure and leak checks in the passageway between the Dragon and the space station, the astronauts opened hatches between the vehicles, and Hurley and Behnken floated into the nearly 500-ton research complex in a scene reminiscent of the arrivals of visiting space shuttle crews during the station’s construction.

Cassidy was the only U.S. astronaut on the space station before the Crew Dragon docking. He launched April 9 from Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz spacecraft with Russian crewmates Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.

After exchanging hugs and greetings, the combined five-person crew marked the occasion with a live video downlink with VIPs gathered at NASA’s mission control center in Houston.

Hurley and Behnken’s mission — designated Demo-2, or DM-2 — is a test flight to check the performance of the Crew Dragon spacecraft before its pressed into operational service later this year. The SpaceX crew capsule, along with Boeing’s Starliner, will carry astronauts to and from the station on regular crew rotation flights lasting up to 210 days.

“While we’re on-board the space station with a new spacecraft, we do hope to put her through her paces,” Behnken said after entering the space station Sunday. “So the good ship Endeavour is going to get a lot of checkout over the next week or two here, and hopefully we will be able to declare her operational.”

“As SpaceX’s final flight test, it will validate all aspects of its crew transportation system, including the Crew Dragon spacecraft, spacesuits, Falcon 9 launch vehicle, launch pad 39A and operations capabilities,” NASA said in a statement summarizing the Demo-2 mission objectives.

But the two Dragon astronauts — each veterans of two prior space shuttle missions — will be part of the space station’s Expedition 63 crew for a period of one-to-four months, NASA officials said before the launch.

Behnken, the Demo-2 mission’s joint operations commander, is expected to perform multiple spacewalks with Cassidy in the coming weeks to install fresh lithium-ion batteries outside the space station. The new batteries arrived on an unpiloted Japanese HTV supply ship May 25.

Behnken and Cassidy might also conduct a spacewalk to focus on tasks outside the European Space Agency’s Columbus lab module.

“We’re looking forward to contributing any way that we can and trying to keep the space station as productive as possible,” Behnken said Sunday.

The Dragon crew was scheduled to get a safety briefing from Cassidy Sunday afternoon.

“Then we’re looking froward to some operational stuff later in the month,” Cassidy said. “Maybe we’ll get outside and do some spacewalks … We’re all super-excited to have two more crewmates on the Expedition 63 team.”

The historic mission to restore human spaceflight capability to U.S. shores comes amid the coronavirus pandemic and protests against racial injustice.

“As a country, we’re in the midst of a tough week,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “We’re seeing protests. We’re seeing a lot of anger, we’re seeing violence. I have to say this launch, and y’all’s docking, is a powerful inspiration of what we can do when we come together — the power of unity, the power of ingenuity.”

“This is just one effort that we can show for the ages in this dark time that we’ve had over the past several months to kind of inspire especially the young people in the United States to reach for the lofty goals, and work hard and look what you can accomplish,” Hurley said.

Hurley, 53, is a retired Marine Corps colonel who hails from Upstate New York. Behnken is a 49-year-old Missouri native, and a colonel in the Air Force.

They are the first astronauts to fly commercial into Earth orbit. NASA says the change will bring about lower costs and more innovation in the space transportation industry.

NASA is also looking to incorporate commercial elements in its architecture to return humans to the lunar surface. The agency last month announced SpaceX and two other companies won contracts to advance development of human-rated lunar lander vehicles.

“This is the beginning,” said NASA Administrator Bridenstine. “We are now launching (astronauts) to low Earth orbit again, but we will soon be going to the moon. We will going to the moon sustainably with commercial partners and international partners. We are going to use the resources of the moon to learn how to live and work for long periods of time. Ultimately, we’re going to take all of that knowledge, and we’re going to go to Mars.”

The Demo-2 astronauts will live and work on the International Space Station for one-to-four months before coming back to Earth for a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean around 24 nautical miles off the east coast of Florida. The final duration of their test flight will be primarily determined by the performance of the capsule’s solar arrays in orbit, mission managers said earlier this month.

The test flight was originally slated to last only a week or two, but NASA approved a mission extension to ensure the space station’s U.S. segment is fully staffed to conduct experiments and stage spacewalks needed for maintenance and upgrades.

NASA has paid the Russian government approximately $3.9 billion since 2006 to purchase Soyuz seats for astronauts from the United States and the station’s other international partners, according to a report last year by NASA’s inspector general.

Most recently, NASA agreed to pay the Russian government $90.2 million for a single Soyuz seat on a launch this October. The U.S. space agency decided to sign the agreement to guarantee access to the space station for a NASA crew member in the event of additional delays in the new U.S. crew capsules.

Assuming Hurley and Behnken’s test flight goes according to plan, the first operational Crew Dragon launch is scheduled from the Kennedy Space Center no earlier than Aug. 30 with a four-person space station crew.

Boeing’s Starliner spaceship — facing delays after a problem-plagued unpiloted test flight last December — will have to perform a second automated demonstration mission before it is cleared to fly astronauts. The Starliner’s crewed test flight to the space station is now expected in the first half of 2021.

The start of commercial crew transportation service will allow the space station crew size to increase from six to seven people. But with NASA seat purchases on the decline, Russia’s space agency has reduced the production rate for Soyuz spacecraft.

The slower Soyuz launch rate has limited the station crew to just three people until the Dragon test flight. That was a factor in NASA’s decision to extend the duration of Hurley and Behnken’s stay at the complex.

“We have had a tremendous partnership with Roscosmos (Russia’s space agency), and we will continue to do so, but it is nice to see crew arrive from this side of the space station after nine years,” said Mark Geyer, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

A report by the NASA inspector general last year concluded the space agency is paying roughly $55 million per round-trip seat on Crew Dragon missions, and $90 million for a Starliner ticket to the space station. Both capsules will typically carry four astronauts on missions to the International Space Stations.

NASA expects to end payments to Russia once the new U.S. crew ships are operational. Under the space agencies’ current plans, U.S. astronauts will continue flying on Soyuz spacecraft and Russian cosmonauts will launch and land on the new U.S. vehicles under a barter arrangement, with no funds exchanged.

But Russian officials say they are not assigning cosmonauts to missions on U.S. vehicles until they are flight-proven.

Russia’s partnership with NASA on the International Space Station program on a technical level has been an unqualified success. Without Russian spacecraft, U.S. astronauts could have not flown to and from the station in the wake of the space shuttle Columbia accident in 2003, or since the shuttle’s retirement in 2011.

But the political relationship has been tortured at times.

One low point came in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. That prompted the Obama administration to levy U.S. sanctions on Russian government entities, and some individuals, including then-Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is now the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

In response to the sanctions, Rogozin suggested on Twitter in 2014 that the United States “deliver its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline.”

“The trampoline is working,” joked Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, after Saturday’s launch of the Dragon spacecraft.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.