SpaceX is set to make history, as Elon Musk’s space company prepares to launch the Crew-2 mission for NASA on Friday morning.
NASA and SpaceX completed a series of reviews ahead of the mission, which is set to liftoff from launchpad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:49 a.m. EDT on Friday. The launch marks SpaceX’s third crew launch in the past 12 months, and the first time it is launching both a reused rocket and a reused capsule.
“It’s super cool to have the opportunity to do this so quickly. In fact … we’ll in less than a year have flown as many people in this partnership with NASA as were flown in the Mercury program,” SpaceX senior director Benji Reed said during a press briefing earlier this week.
Mercury, begun in 1958, was the first U.S. human spaceflight program and included launching Alan Shepard as the first American in space. The Mercury program flew six people to space across five years, a total which SpaceX matched with its Demo-2 and Crew-1 missions last year.
The Crew-2 mission will bring SpaceX’s astronaut count to an even dozen.
“A lot of firsts and a lot of good stuff happening,” Reed said. “In less than 11 months, the joint NASA and SpaceX team were able to certify reuse, so we are flying … NASA astronauts on a flight-proven Dragon and a flight-proven Falcon.”
“Flying on reused vehicles, on flight proven vehicles is key towards greater flight reliability and lowering the cost of access to space, which is ultimately what helps us make life multiplanetary,” Reed added.
NASA and SpaceX are watching the weather, both in the local area in Florida and in the Atlantic Ocean. The flight was previously scheduled to launch on Thursday, but rough seas delayed the launch. The ocean needs to be calm in the direction the rocket is launching, in case a mid-flight abort leads to the capsule splashing down after liftoff.
“Downrange weather is a little bit trickier, as this high pressure system moves over the Arkansas area that combined with this front [and] is causing some pretty high winds in some of the areas downrange and some pretty high waves,” NASA’s International Space Station program manager Joel Montalbano said.
The Crew Dragon capsule must meet up with the ISS in orbit, so if SpaceX doesn’t launch on Friday then the company will wait two days to Monday for the next launch opportunity.
SpaceX developed its Crew Dragon spacecraft and fine-tuned its Falcon 9 rocket under NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which provided the company with $3.1 billion to develop the system and launch six operational missions.
Commercial Crew is a competitive program, as NASA also awarded Boeing with $4.8 billion in contracts to develop its Starliner spacecraft — but that competing capsule remains in development due to an uncrewed flight test in December 2019 that experienced significant challenges.
Crew-2 represents the second of those six missions for SpaceX, with NASA now benefiting from the investment it made in the company’s spacecraft development.
NASA emphasizes that, in addition to the U.S. having a way to send astronauts to space, SpaceX offers the agency a cost-saving option as well. The agency expects to pay $55 million per astronaut to fly with Crew Dragon, as opposed to $86 million per astronaut to fly with the Russians. NASA last year estimated that having two private companies compete for contracts saved the agency between $20 billion and $30 billion in development costs.
The company completed a full dress rehearsal for Crew-2 on Sunday, with the quartet of astronauts practicing suiting up and driving out to the launchpad in the pair of Tesla Model Xs that SpaceX uses for crew transportation.
The astronauts from NASA, JAXA and ESA
The Crew-2 mission will carry an international group of four astronauts: NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, along with Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet.
Kimbrough, the spacecraft’s commander, was selected as an astronaut by NASA in 2004. Crew-2 will mark his third trip to space, having flown on the Space Shuttle in 2008 and a Russian Soyuz in 2016. He’s completed six spacewalks and has spent more than six months total in orbit. Kimbrough came to NASA by way of the U.S. Army, where was a helicopter platoon leader and served in Operation Desert Storm.
McArthur, the Crew-2 pilot, was selected as an astronaut by NASA in 2000. A California native, McArthur came to the space agency after completing a doctorate in Oceanography as U.C. San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She flew on the Space Shuttle for the final Hubble space telescope servicing mission in 2009, working as a flight engineer.
Remarkably, she will also be sitting in the same seat as her husband and fellow astronaut Bob Behnken did in May of last year, as he piloted SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission. Their 7-year-old son Theo will have watched both his parents launch to the space station in the past year, a fact SpaceX’s Reed highlighted.
“In my heart, I know there’s a little boy out there whose mom is flying, and this is something that we pay a lot of attention to. We ask ourselves all the time: Would we be willing to fly our families on these vehicles?” Reed said.
Hoshide is flying as a Crew-2 mission specialist. He’s the leader of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) astronaut group, and has flown to space twice before, on the Space Shuttle in 2008 and Russia’s Soyuz in 2012.
Pesquet is also flying as a Crew-2 mission specialist, having been selected as a European Space Agency astronaut in 2009. He has also flown to space before, having launched on a Soyuz in 2016.
The four astronauts entered the traditional pre-launch quarantine on April 8 to prepare for the flight.
Known as the “flight crew health stabilization” within NASA, the quarantine ensures the astronauts stay healthy and protected in the two weeks before launch.
The spacecraft: Crew Dragon ‘Endeavour’
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule has been reused after having flown the Demo-2 mission last May. Named “Endeavour” by astronauts Behnken and Doug Hurley, the spacecraft has undergone a thorough inspection and testing process to make sure it’s fit to launch the Crew-2 mission.
“We’ve completed thousands and thousands of tests to get to this day, just like we always have in the past and will continue to do. We talk a lot about these kinds of reviews that we do; we call them ‘paranoia reviews,'” Reed said.
Crew Dragon is an evolved version of the company’s Cargo Dragon spacecraft, which has launched to the space station 21 times. Just as Cargo Dragon was the first privately developed spacecraft to bring supplies to the ISS, so Crew Dragon is the first privately developed spacecraft to bring people.
Crew Dragon is designed to carry as many as seven passengers to space at a time.
SpaceX plans to continue to reuse its Crew Dragon capsules, with Reed noting that the company is working with NASA to check components and determine whether other qualifications need to be made between flights.
The rocket: Falcon 9
Crew Dragon will launch on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, with the booster (the large, lower section of the rocket) having previously launched the Crew-1 mission in November before it landed on the company’s floating autonomous barge in the Atlantic Ocean.
SpaceX performed a static fire of the rocket on Saturday, in which its nine engines were fired for seven seconds while standing on the launchpad.
Falcon 9 has become the workhorse of SpaceX’s growing fleet. The rocket stands at nearly 230 feet tall and is capable of launching as much as 25 tons to low Earth orbit. The Falcon 9 series is qualified to fly up to 10 flights and SpaceX continues to push the boundary of reusability with satellite launches.
“Right now we’re working with NASA [and] we’re certified for this upcoming reuse,” Reed said. “We’re continuing our work together as a team, to assess how many more flights we’d be able to reuse Falcons for.”
NASA’s Steve Stich noted that the agency and SpaceX did resolve one issue with the rocket, discovering that there was more liquid oxygen loaded onboard than was needed. However, NASA and SpaceX “concluded that that amount of liquid oxygen in the first stage was well within family of the guidance,” Stich said, so the company will move forward with the launch as planned.
The launch plan
Four hours before liftoff, the astronauts will suit up. About a half an hour later, the crew will walk out to their Model X rides, complete with NASA logos, which will drive from the astronaut quarters out to the launchpad.
With 2½ hours to go, the astronauts will strap into their seats in Crew Dragon and begin checking that all systems are good to go. Then, with just under two hours until launch, the hatch to the spacecraft will be closed.
SpaceX will begin loading the rocket with fuel 35 minutes before launch, which will initiate a final series of processes and checks.
A few minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9′s booster stage will return and attempt to land on the company’s barge stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.
If anything were to go wrong in the last half hour before the launch or even during the launch, Crew Dragon will abort and fire its emergency escape system. The company tested that system in January with no one inside the spacecraft. In that test, SpaceX triggered the system during the most intense part of the launch to show that it could be done at any time.
Crew-2 is scheduled to dock with the ISS about 24 hours later, at around 5:10 a.m. EDT on Saturday. The Crew-1 astronauts are still on board, with their Crew Dragon ‘Resilience’ docked with the ISS. NASA is prepared for the combined crews to spend between five and 20 days together before Crew-1 comes back to Earth.
“Well have some temporary sleeping arrangements for the crew members because we have so many people,” Montalbano said.
Crew-2 will then performed a full duration mission on the ISS, spending about six months onboard.