Just a few hours after returning to Port Canaveral, SpaceX lifted Falcon 9 B1067 off of drone ship Of Course I Still Love You’s (OCISLY) deck, completing the vessel’s 45th successful East Coast booster recovery.
Minutes later, SpaceX began loading unusual hardware onto the drone ship and it soon became clear that preparations were underway to transport OCISLY from Florida to California. Just an hour or two after B1067 was craned onto dry land, SpaceX began removing OCISLY’s water ballast and installing bumpers on the corners of the drone ship’s ‘wings,’ potentially indicating that the company’s plans to begin West Coast Starlink launches as early as July may actually be within reach.
As of 5pm EDT, June 7th, most of OCISLY’s ballast has now been drained and three of four bumpers have been installed, suggesting that SpaceX intends to send the drone ship west in a matter of days. OCISLY wont be the first SpaceX drone ship to transit the Panama Canal – Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) had the honor of completing the latest transit in August 2019.
JRTI had both ‘wing’ extensions removed and stored on its deck during that transit, adding several months of work for removal and reinstallation. However, the installation of bumpers on OCISLY’s wings implies that that the drone ship will be transiting the Panama Canal with its wings installed, potentially dramatically reducing the amount of time the process takes. Given that OCISLY is already an operational drone ship with dozens of booster landings under its belt, its entirely possible that SpaceX will be able to kick off West Coast Starlink launches almost as soon as the the vessel arrives at its new home – Port of Long Beach, California.
Using JRTI’s 2019 transit as a rule of thumb, the 8000 km (5000 mi) journey from Cape Canaveral to Los Angeles should take drone ship OCISLY approximately four weeks, give or take a few days. In other words, even if OCISLY somehow ends up taking 50% longer than JRTI, SpaceX could still be able to perform its first dedicated West Coast Starlink launch in late July.
Once SpaceX has a dedicated drone ship in California, the company’s plan is to launch an average of one mission every month from its Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB) SLC-4 pad. The vast majority of those missions will carry around 50 Starlink satellites, slowly chipping away at three polar ‘tranches’ made up of approximately 1200 spacecraft – around two years of launches at an average rate of one per month.
SpaceX has been targeting July for its first Vandenberg Starlink launch for several months and recently shipped a well-worn Falcon 9 booster from Florida to SLC-4 to support those plans. A few weeks prior, news broke that SpaceX had leased new berths at the Port of Long Beach for Falcon booster and fairing recovery operations, while the company also recently submitted applications for FCC permits for six polar Starlink launches in the next ~6 months. Altogether, everything is coming together for a potentially unprecedented surge of West Coast SpaceX launches.
SpaceX has successfully completed its fourth Dragon spacecraft launch in six months, continuing an unprecedented cadence of missions carrying crew and cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
Sporting a new booster (B1067) and Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft (likely C209), SpaceX’s two-stage, 70-meter (~230 ft) Falcon 9 rocket lifted off without issue on the first try. SpaceX’s second upgraded Cargo Dragon deployed from the rocket’s upper stage around 12 minutes after launch, verified the health of its 12 Draco maneuvering thrusters, and opened its nosecone to uncover its docking port and four more “bulkhead” thrusters.
Those four nose thrusters are used for the long-duration orbit raising and phasing burns needed to rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station and safely return to Earth one or several months later. SpaceX’s CRS-22 Cargo Dragon is currently scheduled to dock with the ISS around 5 am EDT (09:00 UTC) on Saturday, June 5th, delivering around 3.3 metric tons (~7300 lb) of cargo.
More than a third of that upmass is taken up by the first of six new ISS Roll-Out Solar Arrays (iROSAs) that will alleviate the gradual deterioration of the station’s current solar array power production capabilities. Ultimately, with all six installed, NASA says ISS power production will be boosted by 20-30%. All iROSAs will fly in pairs as unpressurized payloads in Cargo Dragon’s trunk. Individually, each 20-kilowatt ‘wing’ weighs 690 kg (~1520 lb).
The next two pairs will fly on CRS-25 and CRS-26, both scheduled to launch in 2022. Of note, CRS-22 is SpaceX’s fourth Dragon launch in a little over six months – equivalent to completing more than 15% of all Dragon launches in less than 5% of the time since the spacecraft first flew. While unusual and partially brought on by secondary Commercial Crew provider Boeing’s extensive delays, SpaceX appears to be on track to maintain an average Dragon launch cadence not far off from this six-month peak.
In fact, as long as several missions remain on schedule, SpaceX could complete another four – or even five – Dragon launches around the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022. Up next, SpaceX is scheduled to reuse an upgraded Cargo Dragon for the first time as part of CRS-23 in August 2021. Inspiration4, Crew Dragon’s inaugural private launch, is expected to launch as early as September. Crew-3 will send four more NASA and ESA astronauts to the ISS as early as October, followed by CRS-24 in December. Finally, Axiom Space’s first four private astronauts will ride Dragon to the ISS as early as January 2021.
Altogether, SpaceX’s next mission to the ISS is on track to kick off five Dragon launches in five months, ultimately marking 12 Dragon launches in 24 months if things go according to plan.
WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched a cargo Dragon spacecraft June 3, carrying experiments and a new set of solar panels for the International Space Station.
The Falcon 9 lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 1:29 p.m. Eastern. The Dragon separated from the rocket’s super stage 12 minutes after liftoff.
The Dragon, flying a mission designated CRS-22 or SpX-22, is scheduled to dock with the ISS at about 5 a.m. Eastern June 5. This is the second flight of the new version of the cargo Dragon, which is similar to the design used for Crew Dragon missions but lacks the crewed version’s SuperDraco abort thrusters.
The Dragon is carrying 1,948 kilograms of pressurized cargo inside of the spacecraft, and an additional 1,380 kilograms of unpressurized cargo stored in its trunk section. It will return to Earth in July carrying about 2,400 kilograms of experiments and equipment.
The largest item the Dragon is transporting to the station is a pair of new solar arrays called the ISS Roll-out Solar Array (iROSA), developed by Redwire for ISS prime contractor Boeing. The arrays are stored in the Dragon’s trunk rolled up, and will be attached to the station’s truss and rolled out. Astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet are currently scheduled to conduct spacewalks on June 16 and 20 to install those arrays.
“The new solar arrays bring us back to a power generation that was the same as we had when we launched the older solar arrays,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager, during a June 2 briefing. “It allows us to continue the science and research programs we have on board.” He said that the new arrays will also provide enough power to support a commercial module being developed by Axiom Space that will be added to the station as soon as 2024.
The key technology for the iROSA arrays was tested on the ISS in 2017 as a tech demo, noted Jennifer Buchli, deputy chief scientist for the ISS program at NASA, at the briefing. Technology demonstrations being brought to the station on this Dragon include a portable ultrasound device for medical care and a European Space Agency experiment to test the use of virtual reality for operating robotic arms and spacecraft.
This Dragon is also carrying experiments such as gene studies of tardigrades, also known as “water bears,” microscopic creatures able to survive extreme environments, as well as studying ways to grow cotton that uses less water.
This launch was the first flight of a new booster, which made a successful droneship landing in the Atlantic Ocean. This was the first SpaceX launch to use a new booster since November 2020. “We’re actually surprised when we get to a mission like today’s where we’re flying a new booster,” said Sarah Walker, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, at the preflight briefing.
Despite flying a new booster, SpaceX did not conduct a static-fire test of the stage at the launch pad prior to this launch. Walker said that SpaceX has been moving away from doing such tests before every launch, something it had done for years, as it gains experience with the Falcon 9. The stage, she added, did perform a static-fire test at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas, test site before being shipped to Florida.
“SpaceX and NASA worked together to determine that an additional static fire at the pad wasn’t necessary this mission,” she said. “We certainly make sure that we do all the necessary tests to make sure that the vehicle is ready for its journey.”
At neighboring Space Launch Complex 40, SpaceX did perform a static-fire test of another Falcon 9 first stage in the early morning hours of June 3. That rocket is scheduled to launch the SXM-8 satellite for SiriusXM Satellite Radio June 6.
For the third time ever, both of SpaceX’s East Coast drone ships have departed Port Canaveral to support two Falcon 9 launches and landings scheduled just a few days apart.
Originally scheduled to launch on June 1st and June 3rd, SpaceX’s SiriusXM SXM-8 and CRS-22 Cargo Dragon missions recently swapped positions after unknown issues delayed SiriusXM’s newest geostationary radio satellite. SpaceX’s second upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft is now scheduled to launch more than 3300 kg (7300 lb) of cargo – including new solar arrays – to the International Space Station (ISS) no earlier than (NET) 1:29 pm EDT (17:29 UTC) on Thursday, June 3rd.
If all goes to plan, another Falcon 9 rocket will then launch SiriusXM’s seven-ton (~15,500 lb) SXM-8 communications satellite at 12:26 am EDT (04:26 UTC) on Sunday, June 6th.
SpaceX drone ships Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) and Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) departed Port Canaveral four days apart on May 29th and June 2nd for the back-to-back launches and booster recoveries. CRS-22 and SXM-8 will be the fourth time ever that two SpaceX drone ships have needed to depart Port Canaveral less than four days apart.
After a nine-month journey of canal-crossing, inspections, and upgrades, drone ship JRTI joined OCISLY in Florida and supported its first East Coast recovery in June 2020. It took SpaceX around half a year to find its pace but the company used both drone ships for near-simultaneously launches and landings for the first time in January 2021, recovering two Falcon 9 boosters at sea in a little over four days.
The same process was repeated in March when SpaceX launched two batches of 60 Starlink satellites in the space of 74 hours, recovering both boosters without issue. That particular success also marked the first time that two recovered Falcon 9 boosters simultaneously stood vertical in Port Canaveral. Barring launch delays or an extremely quick turnaround for CRS-22 booster B1067, CRS-22 and SXM-8 could easily precipitate the second appearance of two vertical SpaceX rockets in port.
Beyond the spectacle of simultaneous recoveries and their demonstration of just how aggressively SpaceX is pursuing its ambitious launch cadence goals in 2021, CRS-22 and SXM-8 will also set a new record for time between two SpaceX launches from the East Coast. If they fly on time, the missions will launch less than 59 hours – two and a half days – apart, beating the previous 74-hour record by 25%.
WASHINGTON — The first in SpaceX’s new generation of Dragon cargo spacecraft completed its mission with a splashdown off the Florida coast Jan. 13.
The CRS-21 Dragon spacecraft splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico west of Tampa at 8:26 p.m. Eastern. It had undocked from the station a day and a half earlier after original plans for an undocking and splashdown Jan. 11 were postponed by poor weather.
The Dragon brought back to Earth about 2,000 kilograms of research payloads and other cargo from the station. The spacecraft, launched Dec. 6, brought nearly 3,000 kilograms of cargo to the station, including the Bishop commercial airlock developed by Nanoracks.
The CRS-21 mission was the first to use the new version of the Dragon cargo spacecraft, based on the vehicle SpaceX developed for the commercial crew program. It includes additional cargo volume and on-orbit lifetime, and can dock and undock autonomously, rather than be berthed by the station’s robotic arm.
The new cargo Dragons also splash down off the Florida coast. Original cargo Dragon missions splashed down in the Pacific, southwest of California, and could take a day or more to return to port. On the CRS-21 mission, time-sensitive cargo from the Dragon was transported by helicopter to a lab at the Kennedy Space Center within six hours.
The Dragon is the second cargo spacecraft to depart the station in as many weeks. Northrop Grumman’s NG-14 Cygnus spacecraft left the station Jan. 6, three months after its arrival. That spacecraft remains in orbit performing experiments, including one testing combustion in weightlessness, and will reenter Jan. 26.
“We’ve really hit our stride. This is our new normal,” Robyn Gatens, acting ISS director at NASA Headquarters, said at a Jan. 13 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee. “Lots of vehicles coming and going, lots of activity on the station.”
The seven-person crew currently on the station, including four NASA astronauts, is enabling what she called “significant more crew time for what can be dedicated to utilization,” or research activities there. She noted that had long been the goal of the commercial crew program, which enables the station to support seven people rather than the six it could traditionally accommodate when the only means to travel there was via Russia’s three-person Soyuz spacecraft.
NASA has not yet set an end date for the Crew-1 commercial crew mission currently docked there. Gatens said it’s likely to end some time in May, about six months after its launch. It will overlap with the next Crew Dragon mission, Crew-2, whose launch is no earlier than March 30.
That date may slip, though, to accommodate the second uncrewed test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. That’s scheduled to launch March 29, although Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA Headquarters, said at the same committee meeting that the Starliner launch could move up a few days to March 25.
The CRS-21 Dragon brought back to Earth a variety of scientific experiments, ranging from heart tissue cells tested on the station to fiber optic cables produced in microgravity. It also brought back a very different commercial payload: 12 bottles of red wine flown to the station in late 2019 by European company Space Cargo Unlimited. The wine, along with 320 snippets of grape vines also flown on the station, will be shipped to a facility in Bordeaux, France, to see how they were affected by their time in space. That will include what the company called a “private, organoleptic wine tasting” to compare the wine flown in space to wine that remained on Earth.
WASHINGTON — SpaceX launched the first of a new generation of Dragon cargo spacecraft Dec. 6, carrying experiments and supplies to the International Space Station.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex (LC) 39A at 11:17 a.m. Eastern after a one-day delay caused by weather. It deployed the Dragon cargo spacecraft nearly 12 minutes after liftoff. The rocket’s first stage, previously used for the Demo-2 commercial crew mission in May then for launches of the ANASIS-2 satellite and a set of Starlink satellites, landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Dragon, flying a mission designated CRS-21, is carrying 2,972 kilograms of cargo, both within the spacecraft itself and in its external trunk. It is scheduled to dock autonomously with the zenith port of the space station’s Harmony module at 1:30 p.m. Eastern Dec. 7.
CRS-21 is the first mission in SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract, which uses a version of the Crew Dragon spacecraft developed for the commercial crew program. “What you see on the outside, the exterior, is the same outer mold line” between the crew and cargo versions, said Sarah Walker, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, at a Dec. 4 prelaunch briefing. The biggest difference, she noted, is the lack of SuperDraco abort thrusters on the cargo version.
The interior is redesigned to accommodate cargo, with about 20% more volume than the first-generation cargo Dragon. The spacecraft can host eight powered lockers for research payloads at launch and 12 for its return to Earth, compared to six such lockers on both launch and return for the earlier Dragon version. Dragon can support more lockers for return than at launch since it can use additional power that, at launch, is needed for external payloads.
Walker noted that the new Dragon can stay at the ISS for up to 75 days, twice as long as the original version, although for this mission it will be docked to the station for about 35 days. The spacecraft, which can dock directly with the station rather than being berthed by the station’s robotic arm, is designed to be used at least five times.
While original cargo Dragon missions launched from both LC-39A as well as nearby Space Launch Complex 40, Walker said SpaceX plans to use LC-39A for cargo Dragon missions in the future, taking advantage of the crew access arm there for loading time-sensitive cargo. “That is a huge advantage for us to be able to perform late-load cargo while the vehicle is already vertical,” she said. “It allows us to do it even closer to T-0.”
Like Crew Dragon, the new cargo Dragon will splash down just off the Florida coast, rather than in the Pacific hundreds of kilometers from California as the first-generation Dragon cargo spacecraft. That will enable some research payloads to be handed over to scientists as soon as four hours after splashdown. “It’s a really critical capability for biological payloads,” said Kirt Costello, chief scientist for the ISS program office at NASA, at the prelaunch briefing.
This Dragon is carrying a wide range of biological and other research payloads for the station. The experiments include studies of the effects of spaceflight on heart and brain cells, testing of an off-the-shelf blood analysis device, and a “biomining” experiment that will examine how microbes could be used to extract resources from asteroids.
The largest payload on the spacecraft is the Bishop airlock for Nanoracks. The company built the airlock as a commercial facility for use deploying satellites and hosting external payloads. The station’s robotic arm will remove Bishop from Dragon’s trunk shortly after docking and install it on the Tranquility, or Node 3, module of the station.
Nanoracks decided to develop Bishop to get around a bottleneck in satellite deployments using an airlock in the Japanese Kibo module, but the potential applications of the airlock have grown over time. “We tried to make the airlock design flexible so that it can be used in a variety of different ways down the road,” said Brock Howe, program manager for Bishop at Nanoracks, during a November briefing about the mission that included several scientists also flying experiments on the Dragon. “Hopefully, the airlock will be able to provide them with capabilities that will enable them to be very creative going forward.”
“This is a monumental moment for Nanoracks,” Jeff Manber, chief executive of Nanoracks, said in a statement after launch. “We came up with this idea five years ago. In those five quick years, we’ve gone from being known as the ‘CubeSat’ deployment company to an organization that is building the future of commercial low Earth orbit infrastructure.”
The Dragon is also carrying several hundred kilograms of crew supplies, which includes some special items for the upcoming holidays, such as “some Christmas-y food,” said Kenny Todd, NASA ISS deputy program manager, at the prelaunch briefing. He declined, though, to say if there were any gifts on board. “I don’t like to get out in front of Santa Claus.”
SpaceX and NASA have completed the last major review standing between Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 and the duo’s operational astronaut launch debut, meaning that a routine static fire test is all that really remains.
On Thursday, November 5, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule – named “Resilience” – of the first operational SpaceX mission to and from the International Space Station (ISS) as a part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) arrived at the Launch Complex 39A hangar at the Kennedy Space Center.
SpaceX is one of two commercial partners that NASA works with to develop a reliable system of crew transportation to and from the International Space Station. Since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program, the United States has been reliant on Russia and its Soyuz program to fulfill the task of maintaining an American presence aboard the ISS. With SpaceX’s first operational CCP mission – dubbed Crew-1 – a new era of commercialized crewed spaceflight will be ushered in.
On November 10th, SpaceX and NASA officials convened for a press conference following the successful completion of the Crew-1 flight readiness review (FRR) – the last major review standing between the assembled hardware and liftoff. SpaceX senior director of Human Spaceflight Programs Benji Reed listed off an array of historic milestones crossed as part of the FRR, noting that the review’s completion means that NASA has officially certified SpaceX for operational astronaut launches, making it the first and only private company in the world capable of safely launching humans.
Additionally, Reed revealed that Crew-1 and Cargo Dragon 2’s imminent December 2nd launch debut will together ring in a potentially unprecedented era in commercial spaceflight. Crew-1 – barring surprises in orbit – will further mark the longest continuous American spaceflight ever, beating a record set by a Skylab mission in the early 1970s if Crew Dragon remains in orbit for the full planned 180-210 days.
“Starting with Crew-1, there will be a continuous presence of SpaceX Dragons on orbit. Starting with the cargo mission CRS-21, every time we launch a Dragon, there will be two Dragons in space – simultaneously – for extended periods of time. Truly, we are returning the United States’ capability for full launch services, and we are very, very honored to be a part of that.”
On a more technical level, Reed noted that SpaceX has decided to replace a component of Falcon 9’s upper stage ‘purge system’ and will bring the whole rocket horizontal later today (November 10th). That swap will delay Falcon 9’s Crew-1 static fire from ~8pm today to ~8pm on Wednesday, November 11th. The Crew-1 mission remains on track to launch no earlier than (NET) 7:49 pm EDT, Saturday, November 14th.
The Crew’s All Here
Three days later, after departing Johnson Space Center via a chartered flight from Ellington Field on Sunday, November 8, the four crew members of the Crew-1 mission arrived in Florida by plane at Kennedy Space Center’s former space shuttle landing facility.
Upon arrival, the crew members – NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency – were greeted by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Agency Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard, Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana, and manager of JAXA’s ISS program, Junichi Sakai.
“Today we are taking another big leap in this transformation in how we do human spaceflight. What we’re talking about here is the commercialization of space. NASA is one customer of many customers in a very robust commercial marketplace in low-Earth orbit,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
Final Milestones Ahead of Flight
After arriving at their launch site in Florida, the four-member crew made the short journey to the LC-39A horizontal integration facility acquainting themselves with their “Resilience” Dragon capsule and the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster that will soon propel them to space. The Dragon capsule had been oriented horizontally and mated with the Falcon 9 first and second stages.
Initially targeting liftoff on October 31, the Crew-1 mission experienced a delay after the SpaceX GPSIII-SV04 B1062 Falcon 9 vehicle suffered an early start anomaly initiating an autonomous pad abort at T-2 seconds.
On Monday, November 9, SpaceX and NASA managers began the tedious process of completing a flight readiness review. The meeting that extends an entire day, or two, involves managers from SpaceX, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and the International Space Station program collaborating in discussion to conduct a joint pre-flight examination of all previous specialized reviews – such as ones done specifically for the Dragon capsule or the Falcon 9 booster. The meeting also serves as an opportunity for every department to discuss and close out any remaining concerns. The meeting began at 9 am on Monday, November 9, and concluded on Tuesday, November 10.
The B1061 Falcon 9 booster and Crew Dragon “Resilience” capsule were transported the short distance from the hangar to the launchpad ahead of the test firing of the nine Merlin 1D engines – a final test to certify all flight-critical hardware ahead of the launch attempt. Clearing the final hurdle before flight, SpaceX officially acknowledged that the Crew-1 mission is targeting liftoff at 7:49pm EST (0049 UTC on Nov. 15) on Saturday, November 14 from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center.
Following liftoff, the Dragon capsule “Resilience” will separate from the Falcon 9 first stage and continue to propel its crew on an uphill journey to rendevous with the ISS approximately seven and a half hours later.
Live hosted NASA and SpaceX coverage of the events will begin approximately three and half hours prior to liftoff at 3:30 pm EST and will be available on NASA TV and the SpaceX website.