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Falcon 9 launches cargo Dragon mission to ISS

CRS-22 separation

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 arrays are the first two of six that will be installed on the station, overlaying part of the existing arrays. The higher efficiency of the new arrays means that, even by shadowing the existing arrays, they will still generate more power for the station.

“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.

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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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NASA approves plans for Crew-2 launch

Crew Dragon

WASHINGTON — NASA managers approved plans to launch a SpaceX commercial crew mission to the International Space Station next week, pending the resolution of one minor issue with the Falcon 9 rocket.

NASA officials said April 15 that, after the completion of a flight readiness review, they approved plans for the launch April 22 of the Crew-2 mission, which will transport American, European and Japanese astronauts to the station on a Crew Dragon spacecraft.

“The flight readiness review was very successful. We only had one exception, which needs to be cleared up in the next few days,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, during a press conference after the review.

That exception involves an issue with loading liquid oxygen into the first stage of the Falcon 9 that results in more liquid oxygen being in the tank than expected. The error is relatively small: Bill Gerstenmaier, the longtime NASA official who is now a vice president for SpaceX, said the level of liquid oxygen in the tank was no more than about 10 centimeters higher than expected.

He said SpaceX discovered it during testing of a Falcon 9 first stage at the company’s McGregor, Texas, facility, when weather interrupted the usual loading process. “That gave us some insight that we don’t typically get, and we got to see that the amount of oxidizer that we had loaded into the tank was a little bit different than what we had analyzed it to be,” he said.

SpaceX will take the time to analyze the loading error, which Gerstenmaier said was common to all Falcon 9 rockets, to ensure the safety of the upcoming crewed launch. “I think in a normal program, this amount of difference wouldn’t matter to anyone, but in our world, we’re going to take the extra step and go review it, look at the consequences and what happens worst-case,” he said.

If that issue is resolved, SpaceX will go ahead with a static-fire test of the Falcon 9 first stage early April 17 at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. The launch is scheduled for 6:11 a.m. Eastern April 22, with a backup launch date a day later. If the mission is delayed beyond April 23, the next opportunity to launch would be April 26.

Other preparations for the launch are proceeding normally. The astronauts that will fly the Crew-2 mission — NASA’s Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, ESA’s Thomas Pesquet and JAXA’s Akihiko Hoshide — will arrive at KSC April 16 and go through a “dry dress rehearsal” of launch preparations two days later.

They will fly both a spacecraft and rocket that have been used before. The Crew Dragon spacecraft, called Endeavour, launched on the Demo-2 mission in May 2020, the first crewed Crew Dragon mission, while the Falcon 9 first stage previously launched the Crew-1 mission in November 2020.

“We had to do an extensive amount of work” to confirm both the Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 booster were safe for reuse on a crewed mission, said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program. That also evaluated a number of upgrades to the vehicle, such as an improved battery system and changes to the abort thrusters that allow them to use more propellant and thus improve their performance.

“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.”

If Crew-2 does launch April 22, it will dock with the ISS at about 5:30 a.m. Eastern April 23. The Crew-1 spacecraft currently at the station would depart the station on the morning of April 28, splashing down at 12:40 p.m. Eastern that day in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast from Tallahassee, Florida.

Stich said NASA was working with the U.S. Coast Guard to prevent a repeat of the Crew-1 splashdown in August 2020, when dozens of private boaters swarmed the capsule after splashdown. More Coast Guard vessels will patrol the splashdown zone to keep other ships at a safe distance. “We don’t anticipate having that problem again.”

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

Crew-2 simluator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starliner delay

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

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

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

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

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Next SpaceX commercial crew mission to launch in April

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next-generation Dragon cargo spacecraft returns from space station

CRS-21 Dragon undocking

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.

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NASA assigns astronauts for third SpaceX commercial crew mission

Crew-1 docking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SpaceX launches first next-generation cargo Dragon spacecraft to ISS

Dragon separation

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.”

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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 has busy manifest of Dragon missions

Dragon assembly

WASHINGTON — SpaceX is preparing for a busy schedule of Dragon missions carrying cargo and crew to the International Space Station through next year, a manifest that will make at least some use of reused spacecraft.

At a Sept. 29 NASA briefing, Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said that schedule of missions means there will be at least one Dragon spacecraft, and sometimes two, docked to the station continuously through the end of 2021 after the launch of the Crew-1 Crew Dragon mission, currently scheduled for Oct. 31.

“This really is a new era for us as a company at SpaceX, and also for commercial space in general,” he said.

Reed said that the current manifest projects seven Dragon missions will launch in the next 14 months, including three Crew Dragon missions. The Crew-1 mission will be followed next spring by the Crew-2 mission, for which NASA has already assigned astronauts from the U.S., Europe and Japan. A Crew-3 mission would follow late next year, although NASA has not announced plans for it.

There will also be four Dragon cargo missions, starting with the CRS-21 mission scheduled for launch in November. Those missions will use the same spacecraft design as the Crew Dragon missions instead of the original cargo version of Dragon flown on past cargo missions to the station. That will enable the cargo Dragon to directly dock with the station, rather than be grappled by the station’s robotic arm and berthed to the station.

The CRS-21 mission will also mark the first time two Dragon spacecraft are in space at the same time. That mission will remain docked to the station for 35 days before returning to Earth. After that, the Crew-2 astronauts will board the Crew Dragon and relocate it from its original docking port, called Node 2 Forward, to the neighboring Node 2 Zenith port. That would free up the Node 2 Forward port, which offers a more straightforward approach to the station, for an uncrewed Boeing CST-100 Starliner test flight tentatively scheduled for late this year.

Flying seven Dragon missions in 14 months will require some degree of spacecraft reuse, Reed said. “A number of them are reused flights, and a handful of them are new,” he said, but didn’t immediately know how many of the missions will use previously flown spacecraft. NASA and SpaceX previously said they would refurbish the Dragon flown on the Demo-2 test flight this summer for the Crew-2 mission. Both Crew-1 and possibly Crew-3 will use new spacecraft, he said.

“What we’re doing right now is assessing the right way to do all of those in the most efficient manner we can, and make sure we have the right amount of margin in the schedule between refurbishment and the need for flight,” he said.

Dragon refurbishment takes place at a SpaceX facility at Cape Canaveral, Florida, which also processes those spacecraft for launch. “Our goal is to be able to do all of Dragon processing at the Cape,” he said. “They’re able to work multiple Dragons through there at the same time, and do refurbishment.”

NASA is not the only customer for the Crew Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX has announced contracts with Axiom Space for missions to the ISS and with Space Adventures for a free-flyer mission. There has been speculation that an Axiom Space mission, perhaps with actor Tom Cruise among its crew, could launch to the station as soon as October 2021 on a short-duration stay.

Reed didn’t comment on any specific plans for such commercial missions, beyond that they were not included in the manifest of seven NASA missions planned through 2021. “I think that late next year is a good time to start looking towards starting those missions up,” he said.

SpaceNews