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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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Crew-1 splashdown delayed by weather

Demo-2 splashdown

WASHINGTON — NASA and SpaceX are postponing the return of a Crew Dragon spacecraft by three days because of poor weather forecast in the splashdown location off the Florida coast.

NASA announced late April 26 that, in cooperation with SpaceX, it is postponing the return of the Crew-1 mission, which was scheduled to undock from the International Space Station April 28 and splash down in the Gulf of Mexico south of Tallahassee, Florida, later that day. NASA said forecasted wind speeds in that zone will be “above the recovery criteria” for a safe landing.

The revised plan calls for the Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft to undock from the station at 5:55 p.m. Eastern April 30. It will remain in orbit for nearly 18 hours after undocking, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico at 11:36 a.m. May 1.

The announcement came several hours after the four Crew-1 astronauts — Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker of NASA and Soichi Noguchi of JAXA — spoke with reporters. Hopkins, the commander of the spacecraft, said at the time that he had not heard many details about the weather forecast for landing since it was still 48 hours out.

“Now is the time when the predictions start to get a little better, so we’re going to see over the next 24 hours whether we have a ‘go’ to start the sequence of events that would have us undocking on Wednesday” April 28, he said.

Crew-1 will be the second Crew Dragon mission to splash down with astronauts on board, after the Demo-2 mission in August 2020. Hopkins said he had talked with the Demo-2 astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, to get their insights on what the splashdown experience was like. That was especially useful, he said, as Demo-2 was the first NASA crewed mission to end in a splashdown since the final Apollo mission, for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, in 1975.

“One of the best pieces of advice that I got from Doug was, with this new vehicle and not having landed a lot before, is just making sure that you’re staying ahead of the capsule,” he said. “That’s something that all of us have been focusing on over the last few days, preparing for that landing, just going over our procedures and making sure that when we get into that sequence of events that we’re ready to go.”

Once Resilience returns, SpaceX will refurbish the spacecraft and prepare it for the Inspiration4 commercial mission, scheduled to launch in mid-September. Hopkins said he had not yet had a chance to talk to the four people who will fly on that mission, “but I think all of us would love to have that opportunity and talk to them about what it’s like inside Resilience going uphill, and we’ll be able to tell them soon here what it’s like coming home as well.”

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Crew-2 arrives at ISS

ISS crew

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft arrived at the International Space Station April 24, less than 24 hours after its launch from Florida, giving the station its largest crew in a decade.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft Endeavour, which launched from the Kennedy Space Center April 23, docked with the station’s Harmony module at 5:08 a.m. Eastern. The four Crew-2 astronauts joined their seven colleagues on the station about two and a half hours later.

Endeavour, which also flew the Demo-2 mission to the station last summer, had a largely trouble-free flight to the ISS. The only issue was external to the spacecraft: controllers asked the crew to get back into their suits and close their visors several hours after launch as a precaution when a piece of space debris was projected to pass close to the spacecraft. The debris passed the spacecraft around 1:45 p.m. Eastern April 23 without incident, and the Crew Dragon did not maneuver to avoid the object, which NASA did not identify.

“It is awesome to see the 11 of you on station,” Steve Jurczyk, NASA acting administrator, said in a brief ceremony shortly after the hatches opened. “I’m really excited this for this new era for ISS.”

With the arrival of Crew-2, the station has 11 people on board for the first time since the STS-134 shuttle mission in May 2011, when the five people on that mission joined the six people on the station who arrived on two Soyuz spacecraft. Here, two Crew Dragon spacecraft transported eight astronauts to the station while a Soyuz transported the other three.

“There’s a number of things you have to do” to support that additional crew, said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager, at an April 20 briefing about the Crew-2 mission. That includes additional consumables and increasing the capability of the station’s life support systems, as well as temporary sleeping arrangements for the additional astronauts.

That expanded crew size is temporary, as the Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft will return the four Crew-1 astronauts to Earth on April 28. The spacecraft will undock at 7:05 a.m. Eastern and splash down in the Gulf of Mexico south of Tallahassee, Florida, at 12:40 p.m. Eastern.

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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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Crew-1 launch remains on schedule despite Sentinel-6 slip

Crew-1 astronauts in Crew Dragon

WASHINGTON — NASA is delaying the launch of an ocean science satellite on one Falcon 9 rocket, but says that delay will not affect another Falcon 9 launch of a commercial crew mission.

The agency announced Nov. 3 it was delaying the launch of the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California from Nov. 10 to Nov. 21. The reason for the delay, the agency said, was to give SpaceX time to replace two engines in the rocket’s first stage.

The performance of the Falcon 9’s Merlin engines had been under scrutiny since a launch abort seconds before the scheduled liftoff of a Falcon 9 carrying a GPS 3 satellite Oct. 2. An investigation eventually blamed the abort on a “masking lacquer,” a coating used to protect engine components when they are anodized for corrosion protection. The lacquer was not properly cleaned after anodizing, blocking a relief valve in the gas generator of one of the Merlin engines in the stage.

At an Oct. 28 briefing, NASA said it was replacing two Merlin engines in the Falcon 9 booster that will launch the Crew-1 commercial crew mission, currently scheduled for Nov. 14 from the Kennedy Space Center. At the time it said it was replacing one engine on the Falcon 9 first stage for Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, but that it was still inspecting the engines on that booster.

Before the briefing, NASA indicated that the Sentinel-6 launch would take place first, and that NASA would review the data from the launch before deciding to proceed with the Crew-1 mission. But at that briefing, agency officials said Crew-1 didn’t need to wait for the Sentinel-6 launch. “There is, right now, not a hard bar between these missions,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “We’re going to fly both missions when it’s the right time.”

Instead, agency officials said they wanted to see the GPS 3 launch go first. “One of the engines that we are installing on the first stage has a slight change that we would like to see fly on the GPS 3 mission first,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program. “We would like to see that one mission go fly before we fly crew.”

At the time of the briefing, SpaceX had not yet rescheduled the GPS 3 launch. However, after a successful static-fire test of the booster Oct. 31, SpaceX announced that the launch was now rescheduled for Nov. 5.

NASA, in the statement about the Sentinel-6 launch delay, stated that the Crew-1 mission remains on schedule for Nov. 14. The four-person crew entered prelaunch quarantine Oct. 31, and will travel to the Kennedy Space Center for final prelaunch preparations Nov. 8.

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SpaceX finds cause of Falcon 9 engine abort

Demo-2 launch

WASHINGTON — NASA and SpaceX say they believe they have identified the Falcon 9 engine problem that aborted a GPS satellite launch in early October and delayed a commercial crew mission to the middle of November.

At an Oct. 28 briefing, Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said the engine anomaly that aborted a Falcon 9 launch seconds before its scheduled liftoff Oct. 2 was caused by material that blocked a relief valve in the engine’s gas generator, which powers the engine’s turbopumps. The last-second abort prevented a hard start of the engine, he said, which could have damaged it.

He described the material found in the valve as a “masking lacquer,” a red substance similar to nail polish. The lacquer is used to protect surfaces when aluminum engine components are anodized for corrosion protection. That lacquer is then supposed to be removed with a cleaning fluid.

Koenigsmann said that anodizing work is done by a vendor, rather than in-house at SpaceX, and speculated that a change in processes there, such as using less cleaning fluid, could have caused the lacquer to remain. “We’ve talked to the people. We made them aware of that,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it will not happen any more.”

SpaceX examined the data from testing of other Merlin engines, and found two with similar engine startup signatures installed on the Falcon 9 booster that will be used for the Crew-1 commercial crew mission. SpaceX is replacing those two engines, as well as another Merlin engine installed on a Falcon 9 that will launch the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich ocean science satellite Nov. 10.

NASA said Oct. 26 it has rescheduled the Crew-1 launch, previously planned for Oct. 31, to 7:49 p.m. Eastern Nov. 14. In that statement, NASA said the Crew-1 launch would take place “following a thorough review of launch vehicle performance” from the Sentinel-6 launch.

Agency officials at the briefing, though, offered mixed messages about the dependence of the Crew-1 launch on the Sentinel-6 launch. “Right now there is not a ‘hard bar’ between these missions,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, when asked if any delay in the Sentinel-6 launch would mean a delay for Crew-1. “We’re going to fly both missions when it’s the right time.”

Later in the call, Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, suggested the delayed GPS 3 mission would need to fly before Crew-1. “One of the engines that we are installing on the first stage has a slight change that we would like to see fly on the GPS 3 mission first,” he said. “We would like to see that one mission go fly before we fly crew.” SpaceX has yet to reschedule the GPS 3 launch.

NASA is continuing preparations for the Crew-1 mission based on a Nov. 14 launch. The four astronauts flying the mission entered what Stich called a “soft quarantine” at home with their families Oct. 25. They will go into a more stringent preflight quarantine Oct. 31 and travel to the Kennedy Space Center Nov. 6. A static-fire test of the Falcon 9’s first stage is scheduled for Nov. 9, followed by a final dress rehearsal for launch preparations Nov. 11.

A Nov. 14 launch would also enable a fast approach to the International Space Station, with docking about eight and a half hours after launch. Stich said that fast approach was enabled by the orbital alignment of the station for that particular launch opportunity, and is “about as short a time as we can accommodate” for the approach and docking of the spacecraft. If the launch slips a day to Nov. 15, the Crew Dragon would instead take 27.5 hours to dock with the station.

First, though, NASA and SpaceX must verify that the Falcon 9 is ready to launch that mission. “Over my life at SpaceX I’ve seen little things having big effects,” he said of the masking lacquer problem that aborted the GPS launch. “Rockets are humbling.”

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