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SpaceX Crew Dragon set to make room for Boeing’s Starliner do-over

SpaceX and NASA are on track for the Crew-2 Dragon spacecraft currently docked to the International Space Station (ISS) to perform a “port relocation” maneuver early Wednesday, effectively opening the door for Boeing’s Starlink flight test do-over.

Scheduled to launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket no earlier than (NET) July 30th, Boeing’s Starliner will be flying for the first time since the spacecraft’s near-catastrophic Orbital Flight Test (OFT) debut in December 2019. During Starliner’s inaugural test flight, a combination of inept Boeing software development, shoddy quality control, and inexplicably lax NASA oversight allowed the spacecraft to launch with inoperable software.

As a result, things went wrong mere seconds after Atlas V – which performed nominally – deployed Starliner. Almost as simple as using the wrong clock, the first software fault – something that would have been instantly caught with even the most rudimentary integrated systems test – caused Starliner to think it was in a different part of the OFT mission and waste much of its fuel with thousands of unnecessary thruster firings.

Aside from pushing Starliner’s maneuvering thrusters beyond their design limits, those unplanned and unexpected misfirings also threw the spacecraft off course, obfuscating Boeing and NASA’s ability to communicate and command the spacecraft and troubleshoot the situation at hand. Eventually, the company regained control of Starliner, but not before it had burned through most of its propellant reserves – precluding plans for to rendezvous and dock with the ISS.

Less than three hours before reentry, Boeing also uncovered a separate thruster-related software issue that could have caused the Starliner capsule to lose stability and re-impact its expendable trunk section after separation.

Ultimately, with so many issues and a failure to gather any kind of data related to operations at and around the ISS, NASA thankfully forced Boeing to plan to repeat OFT with Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2). Scheduled to launch in December 2020 as of the second half of that year, OFT-2 ultimately slipped – both for scheduling and technical reasons – to March, June, and finally July 30th, 2021.

Crew Dragon C207 became the first US spacecraft to switch ISS ports in April 2021. (NASA)

More than 19 months after Starliner’s ill-fated debut, NASA and Boeing are now almost ready for the spacecraft’s critical do-over. For unknown reasons, though, NASA and/or Boeing apparently need (or prefer) Starliner to use a specific docking port – the same port SpaceX’s second operational Crew Dragon spacecraft is currently docked to. As a result, SpaceX and NASA have scheduled a port relocation maneuver around 7am EDT (UTC-4) on Wednesday, July 21st.

SpaceX’s first relocation occurred in early April to prepare for the arrival of a second Crew Dragon later that month. When Crew-1 Dragon departed a few weeks after the maneuver, it would leave the station’s zenith (space-facing) port free for a Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft scheduled to arrive around one month later. Due to the station’s geometry and port layout, only the zenith port allows its robotic Canadarm2 arm to unload unpressurized cargo from Dragon’s trunk.

Already at the forward port, the Crew-2 Dragon will thus be moving to the zenith port for Starliner’s brief 1-2 week stay at the ISS. However, as may have become clear, Crew Dragon will then have to re-relocate to the forward port for any future Cargo Dragon missions – one of which happens to be scheduled to launch with an important unpressurized payload as early as August 29th.

Regardless of why, it’s hard to ever complain about seeing Dragons fly. Tune in around 6:30 am EDT (10:30 UTC) to watch Crew Dragon C206 maneuver around an orbital space station.

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Axiom Space purchases three Crew Dragon missions

Crew Dragon approaching ISS

WASHINGTON — Axiom Space has signed a contract with SpaceX for three additional Crew Dragon missions, enough to meet its projections for private astronaut missions to the International Space Station through at least 2023.

Axiom, which already has a deal with SpaceX for the Ax-1 mission to the ISS launching in early 2022, said June 2 the new contract covers the projected Ax-2, 3 and 4 missions to the station. All will use Crew Dragon spacecraft launched on Falcon 9 rockets.

The companies did not disclose the terms of the agreement, including whether Axiom Space negotiated a lower price through a block buy. Axiom spokesman Beau Holder told SpaceNews that the biggest benefit of the agreement was ensuring access to the Crew Dragon for its future missions.

“It secures a vehicle that is flight-proven and ready to support the crewed launch cadence Axiom is planning: approximately every six or seven months leading up to near the launch of the first Axiom module to ISS,” he said. “Expanding this partnership between two key industry leaders cements the commercialization of low Earth orbit.”

Axiom finalized an agreement with NASA for the Ax-1 mission May 10. That Crew Dragon mission, scheduled for launch in early 2022, will be commanded by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría with three customers: Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe.

Axiom announced May 25 that another former NASA astronaut, Peggy Whitson, will command the Ax-2 mission. She will fly with John Shoffner, a private astronaut, and two additional customers to be announced. Axiom did not disclose at the time what vehicle the two would use for that mission, but Whitson and Shoffner had already been assigned as backups for the Ax-1 mission.

Michael Suffredini, Axiom’s president and chief executive, said last month that the company had missions lined up through Ax-4, but did not disclose details about who would fly on those missions or when they would launch. “We still have to work with NASA to figure out exactly when those flights can come to the ISS,” he said at a NASA briefing about Axiom’s agreement for the Ax-1 mission.

NASA’s low Earth orbit commercialization strategy, announced two years ago, allows two private astronaut missions a year to the ISS. That is based on the amount of traffic from other visiting vehicles to the station, and NASA officials said last month they don’t envision increasing that in the near future.

The new contract would allow Axiom to fly missions to the station through 2023, if it is able to secure agreements for the other private astronaut mission opportunities in 2022 and 2023. “We’re prepared to fly on a cadence of about twice a year, but like everyone, we have to compete for the opportunity,” Suffredini said at the briefing.

SpaceX, in a separate statement, sounded optimistic about Axion’s chances of securing those additional ISS private astronaut missions, noting that the agreement covers “three additional private crew missions aboard Dragon to and from the Station through 2023.”

In addition to Axiom, SpaceX is flying the Inspiration4 mission on a Crew Dragon launching this fall. That mission, commanded by billionaire Jared Isaacman, will not dock with the ISS but instead fly in a higher orbit for three days before returning.

Space Adventures announced February 2020 an agreement with SpaceX for a similar Crew Dragon mission, one that would spend several days in orbit but not visit the ISS. At the time Space Adventures said the mission would take place between late 2021 and the middle of 2022, but the company has not updated on the schedule for the mission or announced who will fly on it.

“We are beyond excited to build upon our partnership with Axiom to help make human spaceflight more accessible for more people,” Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said in a statement. “A new era in human spaceflight is here.”

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SpaceX Dragon carries four astronauts home after record-breaking voyage

SpaceX’s first operational Crew Dragon spacecraft has safely returned its four-astronaut crew back to Earth after a record-breaking voyage in space.

Around eight hours after JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi and NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Mike Hopkins undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) and began their descent, Crew Dragon ‘Resilience’ (capsule C207) gently splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico a few dozen miles off the coast of western Florida. Marking the second crewed splashdown of the first crewed US space capsule developed and flown since the end of the Apollo Program almost half a century ago, SpaceX’s successful Crew-1 recovery is extraordinarily significant.

First and foremost, Crew-1’s recovery marks the first time in US history that a crewed spacecraft has successfully returned orbiting astronauts to Earth after spending more than a few months (84 days) in orbit. In fact, Crew Dragon C207 ultimately doubled that Apollo era record, spending a full 168 days (almost six months) in the vacuum of space. Only Russia has extensive experience operating crewed spacecraft in space for half a year or more, meaning that NASA and SpaceX were venturing into the (relative) unknown with their first attempt at a similar feat.

Had something gone awry during Crew-1’s ISS departure or reentry, descent, and splashdown, SpaceX and NASA could have been forced to grapple with the fact that Crew-2’s Crew Dragon might not longer be considered safe enough to return its own four-astronaut crew back to Earth five months from now. Of course, the duo assuredly didn’t make the decision to fly Crew-2 before Crew-1’s recovery lightly and there was clearly a significant degree of confidence that an extra ~100 days in orbit would be a marginal risk – but a risk it still certainly was.

Thankfully, Crew-1’s ISS departure and splashdown was truly flawless, effectively retiring what little risk remained and confirming beyond a shadow of a doubt that SpaceX’s first crewed spacecraft is safe for human spaceflight.

Crew-1 astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, and Soichi Noguchi are pictured inside Dragon shortly before hatch close and undocking. (Thomas Pesquet)
Back on the ISS, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet was able to capture some truly spectacular photos of Crew Dragon’s plasma trail as it tore through the atmosphere during reentry. (Thomas Pesquet)
Half a day later, the four astronauts (and Crew Dragon) were safely back on Earth. (NASA)

Notably, in another demonstration of NASA’s increasingly extraordinary trust in SpaceX, Crew-1’s recovery was the first time a crewed spacecraft has landed in the ocean at night since Apollo 8 splashed down in 1968. While obviously far from preferable compared to a normal daylight recovery, sea and weather conditions were apparently too good to pass up and SpaceX’s recovery teams have already extensively trained for nighttime splashdowns.

Just a few weeks prior, the exact same Crew Dragon became the first US spacecraft ever to switch docking ports while in orbit – a feat it completed without issue. In other words, Crew Dragon Resilience (C207) is the first crewed space capsule to fly four people, splash down at night, and switch docking ports in orbit, as well as the first US crewed spacecraft to spend more than three months in space and first privately-developed spacecraft to complete an operational astronaut transport mission.

Wrangling a Dragon – at night. (NASA)

Now that Crew-1 has vacated its ISS docking port, SpaceX’s second upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft is clear to launch and dock with the ISS as early as June 3rd. In late October, SpaceX is scheduled to perform an almost identical Dragon ‘hand-off,’ launching Crew-3 and four more international astronauts to briefly join Crew-2’s Dragon at the ISS before the latter vehicle heads back to Earth with its own crew of four.

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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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A 2021 Space(X) Odyssey: Dragon aces third astronaut launch, docks with space station

Early on Saturday morning, SpaceX Crew Dragon ‘Endeavour’ (capsule C206) – carrying four international astronauts – flawlessly docked with the International Space Station (ISS) for the second time in less than a year.

Capping off a smooth 24 hours of free-flight following an equally successful Falcon 9 launch on Friday, April 23rd, Dragon’s third crewed space station arrival was captured in spectacular fashion – thanks in part to the presence of a separate Crew Dragon vehicle already docked to the orbiting outpost. Recently swapped between the two ISS docking ports capable of supporting Dragons, Crew-1 NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins had – by far – the best view in the house of Crew-2’s space station rendezvous while looking out the window of the other Crew Dragon on orbit.

Former NASA flight director and Space Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale put it best, stating that SpaceX “[made] it look easy” with a “perfectly successful [Crew-2] launch and docking” – the company’s third astronaut launch and space station rendezvous since May 2020.

Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon launch towards the ISS for the fourth time. (Richard Angle)
Crew Dragon C206 approaches the ISS for the second time in 11 months. (NASA)

After a mere three days of delays – one for weather – from an April 20th (4/20) target set almost three months earlier, Crew Dragon lifted off on SpaceX and NASA’s Crew-2 mission shortly before dawn on April 23rd. As the rocket rapidly carried Dragon and its passengers from sea level to dozens of kilometers above the Earth’s surface, it sailed into sunlight, producing a spectacle that stretched across a vast swath of the pre-dawn sky as the sun lit up Falcon 9’s second stage exhaust plume.

(Richard Angle)

The four astronauts aboard the flight-proven Dragon were equally amazed as the inky black vacuum outside their spacecraft’s windows turned to blinding, unfiltered sunlight. One spectacle and a flawless trip into orbit on Falcon 9 behind them, French European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet caught a glimpse of the rocket’s expended second stage effectively flying in formation a few miles below Crew Dragon.

Crew-2’s Falcon 9 second stage (S2) and Merlin Vacuum engine were easily visible from the free-flying capsule – likely not long after the rocket completed a successful deorbit burn. (Thomas Pesquet – ESA)

After almost exactly 24 hours on its own and five major Draco thruster orbit-raising and trajectory-matching burns, as well as an unwelcome collision avoidance warning that ultimately turned out to be a false alarm, Crew Dragon capsule C206 completed its second space station docking without delay around 5am on April 24th. Pesquet has published several dozen excellent photos of the flight and docking, offering the best look yet at what life aboard a free-flying Dragon is really like for the four astronauts packed into a volume – as he himself notes – roughly equivalent to a large car’s cabin.

Japanese (JAXA) astronaut Akihiko “Aki” Hoshide takes a nap beside one of Dragon’s two windows. (Thomas Pesquet)
Several dozen miles out, Crew-2 spotted the football-field-sized ISS as a tiny speck floating in space. (Thomas Pesquet)

With its successful arrival, SpaceX – for the first time ever – had two separate Crew Dragon spacecraft docked to ISS simultaneously, marking the first of at least two more Dragon ‘hand-off’ milestones to come. Though NASA nominally planned to have Commercial Crew providers SpaceX and Boeing essentially take turns on operational astronaut ferry missions, the latter company’s Starliner spacecraft is more than a year and a half behind schedule and is unlikely to perform its first crewed demonstration flight before Q1 2022.

In other words, SpaceX has been forced to mature its Crew Dragon program much faster than expected to complete at least four back-to-back astronaut launches in ~17 months, while NASA is effectively dependent on the company to ensure the ISS remains fully crewed from May 2020 to sometime in 2022.

(NASA)
A spectacular front-seat view of Crew-2’s ISS arrival through the window of a different Dragon. (Mike Hopkins – NASA)

Following Crew-2’s smooth arrival, Crew-1’s Crew Dragon and its four-astronaut crew will return to Earth as early as April 28th. Sometime in October or November 2021, SpaceX will repeat that hand-off process once again when it launches Crew-3 and recovers Crew-2. There is a distant chance Boeing will have completed two successful test flights and be ready for Starliner’s operational astronaut launch debut in early 2022, but it’s arguably much more likely that SpaceX will also perform a third hand-off between Crew-3 and Crew-4 sometime in Q2 2022 before finally handing over the reins to Starliner.

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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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SpaceX launches astronauts on flight-proven rocket and capsule in spaceflight first

For the first time in history, SpaceX has sent astronauts into space inside a reused Crew Dragon space capsule with the help of a flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket booster, kicking off a new era of flight-proven human spaceflight.

Aside from NASA’s Space Shuttle, whose orbiter and solid rocket boosters were routinely refurbished for three decades, no other crewed spacecraft or rocket in the history of spaceflight has launched astronauts more than once. SpaceX, a private company, aims to change that and become the second entity of any kind to reuse a crewed spacecraft or rocket. Even more significantly, a successful launch would make Crew Dragon the first space capsule – and Falcon 9 the first liquid rocket – of any kind to be reused on an astronaut launch.

After high winds and seas hundreds or thousands of miles downrange scrubbed a Thursday, April 22nd attempt, weather cooperated on Friday, permitting a flawless liftoff at 5:49 am EDT (09:49 UTC). Excluding nature, the mission has been a flawless technical success from well before launch to well after liftoff, continuing to demonstrate SpaceX’s extraordinary expertise and the refined nature of Falcon 9 and Dragon.

A flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft carried four astronauts into orbit – and into sunlight – early on Friday. (Richard Angle)

Now safely in orbit, Crew Dragon “Endeavor” (capsule C206) and astronauts Akihiko Hoshide, Thomas Pesquet, Shane Kimbrough, and Megan McArthur have a ~23-hour free-flight ahead of them as their SpaceX spacecraft autonomously works to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS). That rendezvous will require five major burns of Draco maneuvering thrusters, the first of which was completed around 40 minutes after reaching orbit.

Barring surprises, Crew Dragon C206 is scheduled to dock with the ISS for the second time no earlier than (NET) 5:10 am EDT (09:10 UTC) on Saturday, April 24th. If successful, the Crew-2 Dragon will join SpaceX’s Crew-1 Dragon at a docking port just a handful of meters away, marking the first time that two Crew Dragons have been simultaneously docked at the ISS.

A bit less than five months ago, the first upgraded Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft – an uncrewed version of Crew Dragon – joined the same Crew-1 Dragon in orbit and at the ISS, marking a significant first for SpaceX. As the company itself made clear at the time, that milestone was expected to kick off a virtually uninterrupted one to two years of Dragon operations in space, meaning that every additional Crew or Cargo Dragon launch would make for two Dragons in orbit. Crew-2 is the second of those guaranteed dual-Dragon occurrences since Crew-1 launched and docked with the ISS in November 2020.

Pending an equally successful rendezvous with the ISS, Friday’s flawless Crew-2 launch means that the Crew-1 Dragon and astronauts Shannon Walker, Soichi Noguchi, Mike Hopkins, and Victor remain on schedule to depart the ISS and return to Earth on April 28th after six months in orbit. SpaceX’s next Dragon mission – Cargo Dragon 2’s second flight, CRS-22 – is scheduled to launch no earlier than (NET) June 3rd, 2021.

Falcon 9’s upper stage engine plume catches orbital dawn before sunlight reaches the Florida coast. (Richard Angle)

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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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SpaceX’s next Dragon astronaut launch pushed to Friday by bad abort weather

SpaceX’s second operational Dragon astronaut launch and one of the biggest milestones in the history of rocket and spacecraft reuse will have to wait until Friday after bad ‘abort’ weather tripped up an otherwise excellent Thursday launch attempt.

Aside from nature’s boundless chaos, all other elements of SpaceX and NASA’s Crew-2 astronaut launch are in excellent condition and ready for flight – now scheduled no earlier than 5:49 am EDT (09:49 UTC) on Friday, April 23rd.

As previously discussed on Teslarati, both Falcon 9’s first stage and Crew Dragon’s recoverable capsule are flight-proven, making Crew-2 the first time in history that a private company – or anyone, for that matter – has attempted to launch astronauts with a reused liquid rocket booster or flight-proven space capsule, let alone both at the same time.

“In essence, success would mean that SpaceX has unequivocally proven that a private company can develop – nearly from scratch – methods of rocket and spacecraft reusability that are so successful and reliable that perhaps the most risk-averse customer on Earth is willing to place the lives of its astronauts in the hands of those flight-proven spacecraft and rockets. If SpaceX can accomplish that feat with Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon, there is no practical reason to doubt that it can be repeated with Starship – a vehicle that has already piqued NASA’s interest.”

Teslarati.com – 15 April 2021

Thus far, both Falcon booster B1061 and Dragon capsule C206 have sailed through their prelaunch processing, most recently culminating in a flawless static fire test and ‘dry dress’ rehearsal late last week. Since then, NASA and SpaceX have continued to analyze data and inspect hardware but are otherwise simply waiting on the weather. Both on Thursday and Friday, weather at the pad itself (and in the region of the Atlantic where Falcon 9’s first stage will be landing) is about as good as it gets, offering just a 10-20% chance of conditions that could scrub the launch.

Unfortunately, things aren’t quite that easy. Due to the fact that NASA and SpaceX have to ensure that thorough contingency plans are in place in case of a launch failure and Dragon abort, Crew Dragon launches also have to take into account weather conditions and sea states across a ~3200-kilometer (~2000 mi) corridor stretching from the Central Florida coast to Ireland. With such a vast expanse of the ocean in focus, the odds that all possible abort scenarios will result in a safe splashdown and astronaut recovery start to become akin to winning the lottery.

At least for now, SpaceX is unable to guarantee the safety of Dragon astronauts in more than moderate swell and surface wind conditions. (NASA)

In the case of Crew-2, the weather somewhere along that vast tract of the Atlantic Ocean isn’t behaving, leading NASA and SpaceX to delay the launch from Thursday to Friday. If Friday’s attempt suffers the same fate, orbital mechanics will push the next launch opportunity to Monday, April 26th. As always, SpaceX will stream the launch live. Tune in around four hours before liftoff at SpaceX.com.

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