SpaceX readies Crew Dragon for launch to space station

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SpaceX is readying a Falcon 9 rocket for launch to ferry three Americans and a German to the International Space Station. It will be the maiden flight of a new Crew Dragon capsule, "Endurance." But the launch, originally scheduled for early Sunday, October 31, has now been delayed until at least Saturday.

Docking will kick off a hectic few days of handover activity as four departing astronauts, who launched to the lab complex last April, bring their replacements up to speed on station operations before returning to Earth aboard their own Crew Dragon to close out a six-month mission.

"That handover is pretty short on orbit," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's former chief of spaceflight operations and now a senior manager at SpaceX. "So it's a pretty intense time for us at SpaceX to make sure we're ready to go launch and then we're also ready to go retrieve a vehicle in a fairly short amount of time."

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Crew Dragon capsule
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Crew Dragon capsule

The only open issue going into the countdown was analysis of a minor upgrade to prevent leakage in the capsule's urine collection system that was noticed on the most recent flight. A similar issue affects the Crew Dragon "Endeavour" coming home next week, but Gerstenmaier said neither problem was expected to have an impact.

Even so, he added, speaking in general, "we need to stay attentive, keep working together as a team and make sure we're really ready to go fly. Because the worst thing we can do is lose our attention and think it's easy and fall back. We've got to just keep looking and making sure things are really ready to go fly."

The crew rotation comes amid a flurry of short-duration commercial flights ranging from the all-civilian Inspiration4 charity mission in low-Earth orbit in September to a 12-day stay on the space station by a Russian actress and her director earlier this month.

"We really feel super lucky to be at NASA at such an exciting time," Endurance crew member Kayla Barron, a Naval Academy graduate and one of the first women to serve aboard a Navy submarine, said in an interview with CBS News.

The Crew-3 astronauts, posing in the launch pad access arm leading to their Crew Dragon
The Crew-3 astronauts, posing in the launch pad access arm leading to their Crew Dragon

"We're really at the dawn of this new era where we have commercial space flight partners who are flying human beings to low-Earth orbit, who are partnering with us in that space and getting ready to kind of take it over so we can focus on exploration, going to the moon so that we can learn how to go to Mars."

On a more personal level, "this will actually be the first rocket launch I've seen in person," she told reporters later, "and I'll be in the capsule on the top of it! So I'm really excited for the whole experience."

The upcoming Endurance flight will be followed by a space station visit in December by a Japanese billionaire and his assistant riding another Russian Soyuz spacecraft, followed by a Crew Dragon flight in February carrying four civilians to the space station for a 10-day visit.

Plans for the mission

Barron's crewmates include commander Raja Chari, pilot Thomas Marshburn and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer.

Marshburn, a medical doctor, is a veteran of two previous flights, a 16-day mission aboard the space shuttle Endeavour and a Soyuz flight to the space station that lasted 145 days. The rest of the "Crew-3" astronauts are space rookies.

Going into the flight, 598 individuals had flown in space, including Marshburn. Chari and Marshburn are both seated just ahead of Barron and Maurer in the Crew Dragon, so Chari will become the 599th individual to reach space. By luck of the draw, Maurer, designated mission specialist No. 1, will become the 600th and Barron, MS-2, the 601st.

Endurance will make the climb to orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket using a first stage making its second flight.

After boosting the Crew Dragon out of the thick lower atmosphere, the stage will separate, flip around and head for landing on an off-shore drone ship stationed several hundred miles downrange in the Atlantic Ocean. If successful, it will mark SpaceX's 93rd booster recovery and its 70th at sea.

The Falcon 9 second stage, meanwhile, will continue the climb to orbit, releasing the Crew Dragon to fly on its own about 12 minutes after liftoff.

From there, Chari, a former F-35 test pilot and Air Force combat veteran, will monitor an automated 22-hour rendezvous with the space station, approaching from behind and below early November 1, looping up directly ahead of the outpost and then moving in for docking at the forward port of the Harmony module.

Standing by to welcome their new crewmates aboard will be Soyuz MS-19/65S commander Anton Shkaplerov, cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, along with Crew-2 astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide.

While the Crew-3 astronauts will reach the station as Halloween is drawing to a close in the United States, "I heard a rumor that Mark Vande Hei might have some plans in store for our Halloween costumes," Barron joked with reporters before launch. "We maybe have a surprise in store when we cross the hatch for Halloween."

The Crew-3 astronauts will replace four fliers who were launched last April on the Crew-2 mission (left to right): European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, Megan McArthur, Shane Kimbrough and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide. / Credit: NASA
The Crew-3 astronauts will replace four fliers who were launched last April on the Crew-2 mission (left to right): European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, Megan McArthur, Shane Kimbrough and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide. / Credit: NASA

The Endurance crew will only have three days or so to learn the ins and outs of station operations from Kimbrough, McArthur, Hoshide and Pesquet before the Endeavour astronauts strap back into their own Crew Dragon and undock at the evening of November 4. Splashdown off the coast of Florida, either in the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, is expected the next morning.

The Crew-2 departure could be adjusted slightly depending on the weather and a possible fly around of the station to carry out a detailed high-resolution photo survey. But a final decision on how to proceed is not expected until shortly before undocking.

Dubrov and Vande Hei launched to the station on April 9, along with Soyuz MS-18/64S commander Oleg Novitskiy. Novitskiy returned to Earth October 14 with Russian actress Yulia Peresild and director Klim Shipenko, who were launched to the lab October 5 with Shkaplerov in a commercial venture to film scenes for a science fiction movie.

Shkaplerov remained behind aboard the station to escort Dubrov and Vande Hei home next March 30 aboard the Soyuz MS-19/65S spacecraft after they log nearly a full year — 355 days — in space. Their replacements, launching aboard another Soyuz, will arrive 12 days earlier.

Chari, Marshburn, Barron and Maurer plan to remain aboard the station until late April, handing off to another four astronauts riding up on another new Crew Dragon, the fourth in SpaceX's inventory.

In the meantime, they'll be busy.

"We have around 300, 350 experiments in our luggage, and roughly 10% of these are European experiments," said Maurer, who holds a doctorate in materials science an engineering.

"And these experiments will range from material science, engineering, life sciences, technological demonstrations, but also experiments that enable us to do the next step, from low Earth orbit to exploration to fly to the moon."

The Crew-2 Dragon
The Crew-2 Dragon

Along with a full slate of research activity, the Crew Dragon astronauts plan three spacewalks, one next month by Marshburn and Barron to replace an S-band radio antenna and two more in March to continue assembly of new roll-out solar array support fixtures.

The Russians plan four excursions of their own in January and April to continue outfitting the new Nauka multi-purpose laboratory module.

"We have a lot of exciting things planned from spacewalks to science experiments to visitors with the private astronaut missions and spaceflight participants," Barron said. "So it's kind of a dream mission for a rookie flyer to be joining such an experienced crew aboard the space station."

Opening up low-Earth orbit for commercial passengers

Endurance's launch will mark the fourth piloted Crew Dragon flight under NASA's Commercial Crew Program and its third operational flight carrying astronauts on a long-duration mission. Hence, NASA's name for the mission: Crew-3.

The steady launch cadence reflects the results of NASA's decision in the wake of the space shuttle's retirement in 2011 to fund development of American-built astronaut ferry ships to end the agency's sole reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for transportation to and from the space station.

The NASA contracts that enabled the development of the Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner allowed both companies to retain ownership of the spacecraft and to launch private citizens on purely commercial, non-government missions as well as NASA missions.

The goal is to encourage private-sector development of low-Earth orbit, including civilian visits to the space station and elsewhere, freeing NASA to focus on deep space exploration with the Artemis moon program and, eventually, flights to Mars.

Endurance's crew will welcome the first four SpaceX visitors to the outpost in February when Houston-based Axiom sends up former astronaut Mike Lopez-Alegria and three entrepreneurs aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon. The "AX-1" crew members will spend about 10 days aboard the station carrying out their own research before heading back to Earth.

"It's pretty exciting because it is evidence of this new era we've entered that I mentioned earlier, that we're kind of sharing low-Earth orbit," Barron said. "It's not just government astronauts anymore who are going to be in space, it's also private astronaut missions, like the Axiom mission, or the space flight participants coming up with the Russian flight (in December).

"Having four guests show up at your house where you also work is a challenge for sure, but it's one that we're trying to approach with a sense of teamwork. ... It's really cool to be a part of that history. We're excited to welcome them into our house."

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