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Crew Dragon splashes down to end Crew-1 mission

Crew-1 splashdown

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico May 2, returning four astronauts from a five-and-a-half-month stay on the International Space Station.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft Resilience undocked from the station at 8:35 p.m. Eastern May 1. After departing the vicinity of the station and performing a 16-minute deborbit burn, the spacecraft splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast from Panama City, Florida, at 2:57 a.m. Eastern May 2. On board the spacecraft were NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

The splashdown marked the end of the Crew-1 mission, the first operational commercial crew mission. That mission started with a Nov. 15 launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9, with the spacecraft docking with the station a day later.

The splashdown was the first at night by an American crewed spacecraft since Apollo 8, which splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after its flight around the moon in December 1968. That was the only other U.S. crewed mission to land in the ocean at night.

The decision to splash down at night was driven by the weather conditions. NASA postponed planned splashdowns during the day April 28 and May 1 because of winds and sea states at its landing zones off the Florida coast. However, weather conditions for this landing were ideal, with waves of about 30 centimeters and winds of five kilometers per hour, well within the limits for a safe landing.

“We debated this switch to night very carefully,” Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, said on NASA TV shortly before the Crew Dragon undocked from the station. “We’re putting the crew and the vehicle down in very benign winds and very benign waves. That’s best for the crew and best for the vehicle.”

Stich said recovery teams got experience with the most recent cargo Dragon mission, CRS-21, which splashed down at night off the Florida coast in January. That spacecraft is similar to the Crew Dragon spacecraft. “We’ve been getting ready for this opportunity,” he said. “When we weighed all those options, it just looked like this was the best time to come home.”

The splashdown marks the end of a busy month on the station that saw two new spacecraft arrive at the station and two depart. The Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft with Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov, and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, arrived at the station April 9. The Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft, with Roscosmos’ Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, and NASA’s Kate Rubins, returned to Earth April 17.

Another Crew Dragon spacecraft, Endeavour, launched April 23 on the Crew-2 mission, arriving at the station a day later. It brought to the station NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet and JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide. They will remain on the station through late October, when the Crew-3 mission will launch on another Crew Dragon.

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SpaceX launches NASA Crew-2 mission

Crew-2 astronauts

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — SpaceX launched a Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying four astronauts from three nations April 23 as the commercial crew program moves firmly into operations.

The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 39A here at 5:49 a.m. Eastern on the Crew-2 mission. The Crew Dragon spacecraft separated from the Falcon 9 upper stage 12 minutes after liftoff, while the Falcon 9 first stage landed on a droneship in the Atlantic.

On board the Crew Dragon are NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut. Akihiko Hoshide. Their spacecraft is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station at about 5:10 a.m. Eastern April 24.

The mission is the third crewed flight of the Crew Dragon in less than a year, after the Demo-2 mission in May 2020 and Crew-1 mission in November. The Crew-1 spacecraft is still at the ISS, and it will return with NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi April 28.

Leading up to the launch, NASA officials said that, after a decade of development, the commercial crew program — or, at least, SpaceX’s vehicle in that program — had clearly moved into operations. “It’s very, very exciting to be in this operational cadence,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, during an April 15 press conference after the flight readiness review for the Crew-2 mission, which also reviewed plans to return Crew-1 to Earth.

Kimbrough, the commander of Crew-2, said this mission was the first to follow the streamlined training flow that future missions will use. “We’re the first ones to have gone through what we hope to be the templated flows for future crews,” he said at an April 17 press conference.

That revised training program, he said, combines training on the Crew Dragon spacecraft with that for the ISS. “It’s a little less than a year of training, where the crews in front of us had several years of training. Instead of being more developmental, it’s more operational now.”

“This has been a pretty amazing time with DM-2 and then the Crew-1 launch, and now we’re getting ready for Crew-2,” Bill Gerstenmaier, a former NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations who is now a SpaceX vice president, said at the April 15 briefing.

He cautioned, though, that just because the commercial crew program is moving into a regular cadence of missions, it doesn’t mean crewed missions are routine. “We’re still beginning in this process. We need to not get lulled into thinking that this is fully operational and we’re ready to just continue this in an easy manner,” he said. “This is still very much a learning experience for us.”

That learning experience extends to this flight, which marks the first use of both a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage and Crew Dragon spacecraft on a crewed mission. “We had to do an extensive amount of work to look at both the Dragon for use and also the F9,” Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, said at that April 15 press conference.

That review both examined the vehicles to ensure they met requirements as well as make a number of upgrades to the Crew Dragon spacecraft based on the experience from the Demo-2 mission. Those changes included upgrades to the SuperDraco thrusters and other aspects of the propulsion system used for aborts and improving the spacecraft’s batteries.

“It was a series of upgrades to improve safety,” he said, “and having to make sure the structures, the component lifetimes were all within the certification and the qualification of those components.”

While the missions are becoming more operational, it is still early enough in the program for astronauts to develop new traditions. “Even though there’s some heritage from previous vehicles on the U.S. side, we still get to create some new traditions, which is really cool,” said Pesquet.

One thing the Crew-2 astronauts did that could become such a tradition, he said, is writing their initial in the soot on the Falcon 9 booster that will launch them. That soot is from the booster’s first launch, of the Crew-1 mission last November. “I don’t know if this is going to stick, but I found it really cool.”

The best tradition, though, may be a safe and successful flight. “My takeaway from where I sit right now is that we’ve just got to be really careful,” Gerstenmaier said. “We’re still learning. This is still just the beginning of how we move forward into this new commercial area.”

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Crew-2 on schedule for April launch while next Starliner flight delayed

Crew-2 simluator

WASHINGTON — NASA officials said March 1 that the next SpaceX commercial crew mission to the International Space Station remains on schedule for late April, but that a Boeing uncrewed test flight is facing further delays.

The Crew-2 mission, a flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying astronauts from NASA, the European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to the station, remains on track for a launch no earlier than April 20, agency officials said at a briefing.

The actual launch date may shift by a few days “to more optimize some of the orbital mechanics and the launch opportunities,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program. The agency is trying to fit the mission in during a window between the mid-April departure of the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft and a “beta cutout” in May when sun angles restrict ISS activities.

That schedule also has to accommodate the return of the Crew-1 mission on the Crew Dragon currently docked to the station. Stich said the goal is to have that spacecraft return to Earth by May 9 to avoid “dark landing opportunities” for the spacecraft’s splashdown.

Neither NASA nor SpaceX see any major challenges to launching in late April, even after the shutdown of a Merlin engine on a Feb. 15 Falcon 9 launch that prevented the booster from landing. “Everybody is on track and ready for an April 20 launch readiness date,” Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said at the briefing.

The Crew-2 mission will be the third Crew Dragon flight to carry astronauts, but the first such spacecraft to be reused. The Crew Dragon capsule for Crew-2 previously flew the Demo-2 mission last year, and workers have spent the last several months refurbishing it for the upcoming flight.

SpaceX has been working with NASA on the refurbishment process, determining what components need to be replaced to ensure crew safety and what can be kept. “I can happily say that the vast majority of the vehicle is flight-proven,” Reed said. Some valves and parts of the thermal protection system are being changed, he said, along with parachutes that are replaced after every flight. “Otherwise, it’s really the same vehicle that’s very carefully inspected, carefully prepared and refurbished as needed, and ready to fly.”

SpaceX has also “beefed up” the structure of the spacecraft to improve the acceptable wind speeds and wave heights for splashdown, thus expanding the landing opportunities. “This is one of the most important updates that we’ve done on this Dragon,” he said.

Stich added the spacecraft has improved pad abort performance in the form of additional propellant for the SuperDraco thrusters, which also improves launch constraints by allowing launches when there are stronger onshore winds. “I really look at this flight as an abort enhancement flight,” he said.

Starliner delay

The Crew-2 mission was scheduled to be the third crew-capable spacecraft to visit the ISS in April. It will be preceded by the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft, set for launch April 9.

NASA had scheduled the launch Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle on the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 mission for April 2. That mission will be a reflight of the original, flawed OFT mission in December 2019 that was unable to dock with the station because of software problems.

It’s now unlikely, though, that the mission, recently delayed from late March, will be ready to launch in early April. “We are going to move off of 4/2,” Stich said. Preparations for the mission are about two weeks behind schedule, he said, in part because of winter weather and associated power outages in the Houston area that delayed software testing for the spacecraft by a week.

It’s unclear when the OFT-2 can take place because of the upcoming Soyuz and Crew-2 missions, and then availability on the Eastern Range at Cape Canaveral for the Atlas 5 launch of the mission. “It’s a very busy timeframe on the space station,” Stich said. “And then it’s a busy time on the range, so we’re working hand-in-hand with Boeing to figure out when that launch date will be. We’ll have to stand by for further developments on exactly when that flight will fly.”

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Next SpaceX commercial crew mission to launch in April

WASHINGTON — The second operational SpaceX commercial crew mission to the International Space Station will now launch in mid-April, carrying astronauts from Europe, Japan and the United States.

NASA said Jan. 29 that it set a launch date of April 20 for the Crew-2 mission to the station. NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur will be the commander and pilor, respectively, with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency Thomas Pesquet on board as mission specialists.

The four will replace the Crew-1 astronauts who flew to the station in November on the first operational Crew Dragon mission. NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, will return in that spacecraft in late April or early May, assuming Crew-2 launches on its current schedule.

NASA earlier announced a no-earlier-than launch date for Crew-2 of March 30. However, it delayed the mission to allow the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test 2 mission by Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle to launch no earlier than March 25 for an approximately one-week mission. Both Starliner and Crew Dragon dock to one of two ports on the station, one of which is occupied by the Crew-1 Crew Dragon spacecraft.

The delay to April 20 also accommodates a Soyuz spacecraft, Soyuz MS-18, scheduled to launch around April 10. It will bring three Russian cosmonauts to the station, with Soyuz MS-17 returning to Earth a week later with Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, on board.

“Around the mid-March timeframe we’ll really start to ramp up our preparations for doing some visiting vehicle operations,” Kenny Todd, deputy manager of the ISS program at NASA, said during a Jan. 22 briefing about an upcoming series of spacewalks at the station.

At the briefing he didn’t give a schedule for those missions. “We are still working with our Russian colleagues as well as the Commercial Crew Program to firm up the schedules for the Soyuz 64S and Crew-2 flights,” he said in a Jan. 27 statement to SpaceNews, using the NASA designation for Soyuz MS-18. “Both flights are currently targeting spring 2021, but specific launch dates have yet to be finalized.”

Two of the Crew-1 astronauts, Hopkins and Glover, performed the first in a series of spacewalks Jan. 27, working on the exterior of the Columbus module to support the Bartolomeo external payload platform and to install a new communications antenna there. A second spacewalk on Feb. 1 will complete the installation of a new battery for the station’s power system.

Another pair of spacewalks is tentatively planned for late February or early March, Todd said at the briefing. Those would take place after the arrival of a Cygnus cargo spacecraft currently scheduled for launch Feb. 20.

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NASA assigns astronauts for third SpaceX commercial crew mission

Crew-1 docking

WASHINGTON — NASA has selected three astronauts for a future SpaceX commercial crew mission to the International Space Station as it leaves open the possibility of exchanging seats with Russia.

NASA and the European Space Agency jointly announced Dec. 14 they had assigned NASA astronauts Raja Chari and Tom Marshburn and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer to the SpaceX Crew-3 mission. That commercial crew mission is scheduled for launch in the fall of 2021.

Chari, who will serve as commander of the mission, joined the astronaut corps in 2017 and will be making his first spaceflight. He is also part of NASA’s “Artemis Team” of astronauts announced Dec. 9 who are eligible for future Artemis lunar missions. Marshburn, a NASA astronaut since 2004, flew on the STS-127 shuttle mission in 2009 and spent nearly five months on the ISS in 2012 and 2013. Maurer, who joined ESA’s astronaut corps in 2015, will be making his first spaceflight.

The agencies did not announce who will occupy the fourth seat on the Crew Dragon spacecraft for this mission. “A fourth crew member will be added at a later date, following a review by NASA and its international partners,” NASA stated in a release about the crew assignments.

So far, only astronauts from NASA, ESA and the Japanese space agency JAXA have been assigned to commercial crew missions. The Crew-1 mission currently at the ISS includes three NASA astronauts and one JAXA astronaut, while the Crew-2 mission expected to launch in the spring of 2021 will fly two NASA astronauts and one each from ESA and JAXA.

NASA, however, has expressed its interest in what it calls “mixed crews,” flying Russian cosmonauts on commercial crew vehicles in exchange for allowing NASA astronauts to fly on Soyuz spacecraft. Those exchanges, done on a bartering basis, would ensure there is at least one NASA and one Roscosmos astronaut on the ISS should either the Soyuz or commercial crew vehicles be out of service for a time.

Roscosmos, though, has been skeptical about flying its cosmonauts on commercial crew missions. At a March meeting of the ISS Advisory Committee, former astronaut Tom Stafford, chair of the committee, said Russian officials would consider flying cosmonauts on commercial crew vehicles eventually, but would not fly on the first missions of those spacecraft.

Discussions to enable mixed crews are ongoing. “We’re looking to fly on each other’s vehicles, probably later in 2021,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager, at a Nov. 13 briefing about the Crew-1 mission, which launched two days later. The first step for doing so, he said, is a government-to-government “implementing agreement” that was being drafted at the time of the briefing.

The launch of Crew-3 will overlap with Crew-2, just as Crew-2 will overlap with Crew-1, NASA said. That means that the first operational mission by Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle, called Starliner-1, will likely be delayed until at least the spring of 2022. NASA announced in August it had selected astronaut Jeanette Epps for that mission, joining Sunita Williams and Josh Cassada, who had been assigned to the flight in 2018.

At the time of the announcement, NASA said that Starliner-1 would launch by the end of 2021, but did not give a more precise date. The agency said Dec. 9 that a second uncrewed test flight of the spacecraft, called Orbital Flight Test 2, had been scheduled for March 29. That will be followed by a crewed test flight with three NASA astronauts on board in the summer of 2021.

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Crew Dragon docks to ISS on first operational mission

Crew-1 docking

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft with four astronauts on board successfully docked with the International Space Station Nov. 16, a day after launch on the first operational commercial crew mission.

The spacecraft, named “Resilience,” docked with the station’s Node 2, or Harmony, module at 11:01 p.m. Eastern. Hatches separating the station and spacecraft were scheduled to open two hours later.

The spacecraft, with NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Vic Glover, Shannon Walker, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi on board, launched Nov. 15 from the Kennedy Space Center on the Crew-1 mission. Docking took place approximately 27 and a half hours after liftoff from Launch Complex 39A.

The four astronauts on Crew-1 join NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, who have been on the ISS since arriving on a Soyuz spacecraft in October.

Crew-1 marks the beginning of operational flights to and from the ISS on commercial crew vehicles. The spacecraft will remain docked to the station for six months, with the four astronauts returning home shortly after the launch of the Crew-2 mission on another Crew Dragon spacecraft next spring.

“Congratulations, this is a new era of operational flights to the International Space Station from the Florida coast,” Hopkins, the commander of the mission, said shortly after docking.

Besides ending reliance on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for getting crews to and from the station, commercial crew vehicles like Crew Dragon will enable the station to support seven-person crews for long-duration missions. NASA has touted the additional science that the additional crewmember will be able to perform.

“NASA, with American industry, has developed these commercial vehicles that will allow us to bring more people to low Earth orbit, bring more people to the International Space Station, allow us to do more science in low Earth orbit and allow more commercial opportunities,” Joel Montalbano, manager of the ISS program at NASA, said at a Nov. 13 prelaunch briefing.

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SpaceX launches first operational Crew Dragon mission to ISS

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a Crew Dragon spacecraft with four astronauts on board, lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center Nov. 15

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying four American and Japanese astronauts is on its way to the International Space Station after a successful Falcon 9 launch Nov. 15.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A at 7:27 p.m. Eastern. The Crew Dragon spacecraft, named “Resilience” by its four-person crew, separated from the rocket’s upper stage 12 minutes after liftoff. The rocket’s first stage landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean nine and a half minutes after liftoff.

The spacecraft is scheduled to dock with the ISS at approximately 11 p.m. Eastern Nov. 16. The crew of NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Vic Glover and Shannon Walker, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, will stay on the station for six months.

The launch was scheduled for Nov. 14 but delayed a day because of weather that delayed the arrival of the droneship to the landing zone in the Atlantic. It was not affected by an apparent case of COVID-19 by SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, who reported mixed testing results and symptoms consistent with a mild case. Musk was not in close contact with the crew, and was notably absent from pre-launch activities at KSC, with company president Gwynne Shotwell present instead.

Moving into operations

The Crew-1 mission sets a number of firsts. Glover will be the first Black astronaut to perform a long-duration flight on the ISS. Noguchi is the first Japanese astronauts to fly to orbit on three different vehicles: the shuttle, Soyuz and Crew Dragon. The mission is the first crewed orbital flight licensed commercially by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The mission is also the first operational commercial crew flight, after the successful completion of the Demo-2 test flight this summer with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board. NASA signed the paperwork formally certifying the spacecraft at the end of a flight readiness review Nov. 10.

“It’s just a tremendous day that is a culmination of a ton of work,” Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at a Nov. 10 briefing after the review. “It’s NASA saying to SpaceX you have shown us you can deliver a crew transportation capability that meets our requirements.”

The certification also formally closed out SpaceX’s commercial crew contract with NASA to develop and demonstrate the Crew Dragon spacecraft. “With this milestone, NASA has concluded that the SpaceX system has successfully met our design, safety and performance requirements,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA Headquarters, during a Nov. 12 call with reporters. “It marks the end of the development phase of the system.”

Crew-1 is the first of a series of what are formally known as “post-certification missions” by NASA. Crew-2, which will fly astronauts from NASA, JAXA and the European Space Agency, has a launch readiness date of March 30, 2021, agency officials said at the Nov. 10 briefing. Crew-3 would follow in late summer or early fall.

NASA has called these “operational” missions on many occasions because they are intended primarily for crew transportation to and from the ISS, rather than testing of the spacecraft itself. “We’re launching what we call an operational flight to the International Space Station,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a media event at KSC Nov. 13.

However, agency officials acknowledge that the vehicle is still new, with more to learn. “I would not characterize it as ‘operational’ at this point. There a little bit of a debate as to when we will achieve that designation,” McAlister said. “We’ve completed the development phase, and we are transitioning into operations.”

But, he added, “We don’t want to ever just victory and say we’re done learning and get complacent.” He emphasized the need to “stay vigilant” during these missions, even though the certification confirms that the vehicle meets the NASA requirements.

There will inevitably be problems, McAlister said. “I fully expect there to be issues and anomalies on future missions. No mode of human transportation is risk-free: even bicycles malfunction from time to time,” he said.

The present and future of space stations

The four Crew-1 astronauts will join NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, who arrived at the station last month on a Soyuz spacecraft. That will bring the station’s crew to seven for the first time on a long-duration basis, something NASA has emphasized as a means of increasing the station’s scientific output.

“We’re looking forward to having the extra capability on board, which will allow us to increase the science we do, increase the exploration development we do,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager, at a Nov. 13 briefing.

“It’s going to be exciting to see how much work we’re going to be able to get done while we’re there,” said Hopkins, commander of Crew-1, during a Nov. 9 media event. He said the crew had seen the plan for their first week of activities on the station after their arrival, which had little unscheduled time. “I think they’re going to keep us pretty busy.”

NASA is working to build up the business case for future commercial space stations that will eventually serve as successors for the ISS. Part of that is demonstrating the kinds of activities that could be done on those future space stations. “The next big phase is commercial space stations themselves,” Bridenstine said. “The ultimate goal is to have more resources to do things for which there is not a commercial marketplace, like go to the moon and on to Mars.”

“I believe we are about to see a major expansion in our ability to work in, play in and explore space,” McAlister said of what commercial crew vehicle, including Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, will be able to achieve. “People have predicting this for decades, and I hope we are on the cusp of seeing that happen.”

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SpaceX launches first operational Crew Dragon mission to ISS

Crew-1 launch

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying four American and Japanese astronauts is on its way to the International Space Station after a successful Falcon 9 launch Nov. 15.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A at 7:27 p.m. Eastern. The Crew Dragon spacecraft, named “Resilience” by its four-person crew, separated from the rocket’s upper stage 12 minutes after liftoff. The rocket’s first stage landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean nine and a half minutes after liftoff.

The spacecraft is scheduled to dock with the ISS at approximately 11 p.m. Eastern Nov. 16. The crew of NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Vic Glover and Shannon Walker, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, will stay on the station for six months.

The launch was scheduled for Nov. 14 but delayed a day because of weather that delayed the arrival of the droneship to the landing zone in the Atlantic. It was not affected by an apparent case of COVID-19 by SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, who reported mixed testing results and symptoms consistent with a mild case. Musk was not in close contact with the crew, and was notably absent from pre-launch activities at KSC, with company president Gwynne Shotwell present instead.

Moving into operations

The Crew-1 mission sets a number of firsts. Glover will be the first Black astronaut to perform a long-duration flight on the ISS. Noguchi is the first Japanese astronauts to fly to orbit on three different vehicles: the shuttle, Soyuz and Crew Dragon. The mission is the first crewed orbital flight licensed commercially by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The mission is also the first operational commercial crew flight, after the successful completion of the Demo-2 test flight this summer with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board. NASA signed the paperwork formally certifying the spacecraft at the end of a flight readiness review Nov. 10.

“It’s just a tremendous day that is a culmination of a ton of work,” Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at a Nov. 10 briefing after the review. “It’s NASA saying to SpaceX you have shown us you can deliver a crew transportation capability that meets our requirements.”

The certification also formally closed out SpaceX’s commercial crew contract with NASA to develop and demonstrate the Crew Dragon spacecraft. “With this milestone, NASA has concluded that the SpaceX system has successfully met our design, safety and performance requirements,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA Headquarters, during a Nov. 12 call with reporters. “It marks the end of the development phase of the system.”

Crew-1 is the first of a series of what are formally known as “post-certification missions” by NASA. Crew-2, which will fly astronauts from NASA, JAXA and the European Space Agency, has a launch readiness date of March 30, 2021, agency officials said at the Nov. 10 briefing. Crew-3 would follow in late summer or early fall.

NASA has called these “operational” missions on many occasions because they are intended primarily for crew transportation to and from the ISS, rather than testing of the spacecraft itself. “We’re launching what we call an operational flight to the International Space Station,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a media event at KSC Nov. 13.

However, agency officials acknowledge that the vehicle is still new, with more to learn. “I would not characterize it as ‘operational’ at this point. There a little bit of a debate as to when we will achieve that designation,” McAlister said. “We’ve completed the development phase, and we are transitioning into operations.”

But, he added, “We don’t want to ever just victory and say we’re done learning and get complacent.” He emphasized the need to “stay vigilant” during these missions, even though the certification confirms that the vehicle meets the NASA requirements.

There will inevitably be problems, McAlister said. “I fully expect there to be issues and anomalies on future missions. No mode of human transportation is risk-free: even bicycles malfunction from time to time,” he said.

The present and future of space stations

The four Crew-1 astronauts will join NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, who arrived at the station last month on a Soyuz spacecraft. That will bring the station’s crew to seven for the first time on a long-duration basis, something NASA has emphasized as a means of increasing the station’s scientific output.

“We’re looking forward to having the extra capability on board, which will allow us to increase the science we do, increase the exploration development we do,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager, at a Nov. 13 briefing.

“It’s going to be exciting to see how much work we’re going to be able to get done while we’re there,” said Hopkins, commander of Crew-1, during a Nov. 9 media event. He said the crew had seen the plan for their first week of activities on the station after their arrival, which had little unscheduled time. “I think they’re going to keep us pretty busy.”

NASA is working to build up the business case for future commercial space stations that will eventually serve as successors for the ISS. Part of that is demonstrating the kinds of activities that could be done on those future space stations. “The next big phase is commercial space stations themselves,” Bridenstine said. “The ultimate goal is to have more resources to do things for which there is not a commercial marketplace, like go to the moon and on to Mars.”

“I believe we are about to see a major expansion in our ability to work in, play in and explore space,” McAlister said of what commercial crew vehicle, including Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, will be able to achieve. “People have predicting this for decades, and I hope we are on the cusp of seeing that happen.”

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Weather delays Crew-1 launch

Crew-1 on pad

WASHINGTON — NASA has postponed the launch of its first operational commercial crew mission by a day, citing weather conditions for the recovery of the Falcon 9 first stage rather than at the launch site itself.

NASA said Nov. 13 that it was pushing back the Crew-1 launch by one day, to Nov. 15. Liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A is scheduled for 7:27 p.m. Eastern.

In a tweet, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that “onshore winds and recovery operations” prompted the one-day delay. That was an apparent reference to conditions at the location in the Atlantic Ocean where the Falcon 9 first stage will land on a droneship. NASA plans to use that stage for the next commercial crew mission, Crew-2, launching in the spring of 2021.

Weather for the launch itself was favorable, with forecasts projecting a 70% chance of acceptable weather for a Nov. 14 launch, decreasing to 60% on Nov. 15. Those probabilities, though, only reflect launch weather conditions and do not take into account upper-level winds or conditions at both the booster recovery site or abort locations in the Atlantic.

At a press event earlier Nov. 13, Bob Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center, said teams were working “no serious issues” technically with the rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Crew-1, billed as the first operational commercial crew mission, will carry NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Vic Glover, Shannon Walker and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi to the International Space Station for a six-month stay. A launch Nov. 15 would have the capsule docking with the station around 11 p.m. Eastern Nov. 16.

Bridenstine, at the media event, defended the use of “operational” even though this is only the second flight of the Crew Dragon with astronauts on board. “When we think about flights to space, we take all of them with great precaution. We take them very seriously,” he said. “Every bit of attention that we have on a test flight we also have on operational flights.”

That event also discussed another issue tangentially related to the launch: comments by SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk on Twitter early Nov. 13 where he said he had received conflicting test results, both positive and negative, for COVID-19. Musk also reported having mild cold-like symptoms.

“When someone tests positive for COVID here at the Kennedy Space Center and across NASA, it is our policy for that person to quarantine and self-isolate, so we anticipate that will be taking place,” Bridenstine, adding that he expected SpaceX to do any contract tracing. It was unclear if Musk has recently been at the center, and agency officials said the Crew-1 astronauts have been in quarantine and not in contact with Musk.

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NASA certifies SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft ahead of Crew-1 launch

Crew-1 Falcon 9 rollout

WASHINGTON — NASA formally certified SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft for transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station, clearing the way for a Nov. 14 launch.

Agency officials completed the certification of the spacecraft by signing a document known as a Human Rating Certification Plan during a flight readiness review for the Crew-1 mission Nov. 10. That confirmed that SpaceX met all of NASA’s requirements for safely carrying astronauts on the Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

“It’s just a tremendous day that is a culmination of a ton of work,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, at a Nov. 10 briefing about the flight readiness review. Lueders managed the commercial crew program at NASA for several years before being promoted to her current position in June. “It’s NASA saying to SpaceX you have shown us you can deliver a crew transportation capability that meets our requirements.”

NASA officials previously said they planned to finalize the certification, the final milestone of the overall commercial crew development program, at that review. That allowed them to analyze minor changes made after the Demo-2 test flight this summer, such as modifications to its heat shield and a sensor that triggers the release of parachutes during the capsule’s descent.

After years of sometimes contentious relations, both NASA and SpaceX had kind words for each other. “This certification milestone is an incredible achievement from NASA and SpaceX that highlights the progress we can make working together with commercial industry,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an agency statement.

“Thank you to NASA for their continued support of SpaceX and partnership in achieving this goal,” Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, said in the same statement. “I could not be more proud of everyone at SpaceX and all of our suppliers who worked incredibly hard to develop, test and fly the first commercial human spaceflight system in history to be certified by NASA.”

The certification, and completion of the flight readiness review, clears the way for the launch of the Crew-1 mission Nov. 14 at 7:49 p.m. Eastern from the Kennedy Space Center. The launch will send NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Vic Glover and Shannon Walker, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, to the ISS for a six-month stay.

That launch remains on schedule despite SpaceX making a minor repair to the Falcon 9 rocket. The company said it would swap out a valve on the rocket’s upper stage after a review of testing data. That pushed back a static-fire test of the rocket’s first stage by a day, to Nov. 11.

That repair would take only a couple hours, according to Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX. “I’m not too worried about needing to delay further. We do have a little bit more time,” he said at the briefing. A successful static-fire test Nov. 11 would allow NASA and SpaceX to perform a “dry dress rehearsal” of launch preparations Nov. 12 as well as a final launch readiness review.

The review also confirmed that SpaceX had addressed a problem with the engines on the Falcon 9 that triggered a last-second abort of an Oct. 2 launch of a GPS 3 satellite. SpaceX later determined that a “masking lacquer” material blocked tiny valves in the engine’s gas generator. SpaceX corrected the problem and successfully launched that GPS 3 satellite Nov. 5.

SpaceX replaced two of the engines on the Falcon 9 first stage for this mission as part of that investigation. “We reviewed all the data on those two new engines. All that data looks good,” said Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager. “So I feel really good about this vehicle.”

NASA and SpaceX highlighted the various firsts for the mission at the briefing, including the first operational commercial crew mission and the first time NASA has flown four people on a capsule. It will also be the first orbital crewed mission licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Stich said that the FAA will have responsibility for public safety during launch and reentry.

“It’s very exciting to us get past this milestone and have the agency approve our human rating certification,” Stich said of NASA’s certification of Crew Dragon, noting he’s been involved in the program for 10 years. “Even though we’re certified, I don’t treat this flight any differently than any other flight. We’re going to methodically make sure we’re ready to go launch.”

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