NASA Launches Astronauts to the ISS on a Reused SpaceX Rocket

The six-month mission is another step toward an eventual moon landing, and the second time this Crew Dragon capsule has visited the space station.

Four astronauts blasted off to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral early Friday, marking NASA’s first-ever launch with a slightly-used SpaceX rocket and capsule. After a one-day weather delay, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and the Endeavour Crew Dragon module lifted off at 5:49 am as planned.

“Endeavour launches once again four astronauts from three countries to the one and only International Space Station,” said a voice from NASA Mission Control.

After a two-minute and 40 second burn, the first stage rocket detached from the second stage, ignited its thrusters and slowly returned to Earth to land on a floating platform off the coast of Florida. Meanwhile, the Crew-2 astronauts continued for another six minutes powered by the second stage booster, which put the Dragon Crew capsule into Earth orbit.

During the pre-dawn liftoff, the rocket’s Merlin engines provided 1.7 million pounds of thrust to leave Earth, reaching a speed of 17,000 miles per hour as it reached orbit. The successful launch was greeted by cheers from technicians NASA’s Mission Control room in Houston and SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

After 13 minutes, the crew was able to lift their helmet visors and watch the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean.

After a few laps around the Earth, Crew-2 will dock with the station early Saturday, joining the seven astronauts already on board. The ISS will be at full capacity for several days until Crew-1, who arrived in November, returns to Earth on April 28. Crew-2 commander Shane Kimbrough, pilot Megan McArthur of NASA, mission specialist Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency, and mission specialist Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will spend the next six months on the space station conducting experiments on human tissue engineering, as well as installing new flexible solar panels that will boost the station’s power by 30 percent.

This is the first time that NASA has sent humans into space via a previously-used rocket and capsule. The rocket boosted the Crew-1 flight in November 2020, while the Endeavour Crew Dragon capsule flew during the Demo-2 mission in May 2020. Reusability is key to SpaceX’s strategy of keeping costs down while maintaining a rapid pace of launches for both NASA and its commercial clients, according to Benji Reed, SpaceX’s senior director for human spaceflight. “The Holy Grail of spaceflight is reusability,” Reed told reporters during a teleconference earlier this week. “We’re continuing our work together as a team to assess how many more flights we’d be able to reuse.”

The Falcon 9 rocket has been designed for about ten flights, but has to be recertified by NASA before each mission. The Space Shuttle was also a reusable spacecraft, but it landed on a runway like an airplane and was boosted into space by rockets that were later discarded. (NASA ended the shuttle program in 2011.) The Space Shuttle required a tremendous amount of maintenance between flights, including the inspection and replacement by hand of hundreds of tiled heat shields on its underbelly. The new SpaceX rocket and capsule combo requires fewer repairs in between flights. That includes replacement of some wiring and checking whether saltwater is getting into the capsule after the crew splashes down into the ocean when they return to Earth, Reed said.

But that wasn’t the initial plan, says Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut who managed commercial crew contracts at SpaceX from 2015 to 2018. “When I wrote that original contract, we wrote in there that every time we launched NASA astronauts, you have a brand spanking new rocket, and a brand spanking new spacecraft,” he says. That model changed because the Falcon 9 and the Crew Dragon capsule have performed well over the past few years. “The thing that’s surprising is not that we’re doing it [reusing rockets], it is that we are doing it as quickly as we’re doing it,” says Reisman, who is now a professor of astronautical engineering at the University of Southern California and a technical consultant for the AppleTV alternate space history series For All Mankind.

With 11 people inside, the ISS astronauts will have to figure out new sleeping arrangements and adjust the station’s life support systems, such as the oxygen supply. Those systems will be tested by the extra passengers, but not put in any danger, NASA officials said at a pre-flight press conference earlier this week.

“This is going to put a real stress test on our life support systems, but it’s by design,” agrees NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock, who spoke with WIRED before the launch about the flight plans. Wheelock, who is now training astronauts for future lunar landings, says the extra bodies will also give NASA more information about its systems and how they work with a full house. That kind of information might even help design future outposts on the moon or Mars. “We have CO2 scrubbers on board that are going to be working overtime when there’s 11 people on board,” he says. “So this gives us great data points, with almost like a surge capacity of our life support systems, as well, so we’re not losing the opportunity to gather data on our technology.” And he points out that things sometimes need to get tuned up in space: He fixed a broken cooling system during his space mission in 2010.

He also recalls what it’s like for the ISS residents when a new crew arrives on the space station. “It’s busy, and the people that are just coming from the planet are a little bit more clumsy than those that have been there for several months,” says Wheelock. “You can always tell who the newbies are that first day. So they’re kicking things off the wall and things like that.”

Sending humans back to the moon may happen as soon as 2024, at least according to recent comments from former Florida Senator Bill Nelson, who flew on the Space Shuttle in 1986 and is now President Joe Biden’s nominee to become the space agency’s next administrator. In addition to it being the third commercial crew launch for SpaceX in the past year, NASA awarded the company a $2.9 billion contract last week for the Human Landing System to send a crew to the moon and return them safely. That mission will use SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft, which is still undergoing tests along with the Falcon Heavy rocket.

NASA’s awarding of the big lunar landing contract, combined with today’s successful launch “clearly indicate that SpaceX has become a central actor in human spaceflight,” says John Logsdon, professor emeritus at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute. “It is pretty remarkable because they are new arrivals on the scene and are taking leadership away from Boeing.”

Boeing is developing its own space vehicles, known as the Starliner crew capsule and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, both of which are behind schedule and way over budget. SpaceX also beat out Blue Origin, the commercial space firm led by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, for the NASA contract. A Blue Origin spokesperson in Seattle declined to comment about the firm’s lunar spaceflight plans, although the company is planning to send tourists, researchers and perhaps astronauts in training into Earth orbit sometime later this year.

Blue Origin tested its New Shepard capsule on April 14 in a dress rehearsal using four company executives to stand in for future customers. They went through a pre-flight check, and then exited the craft before the rocket launched. The New Shepard—with the company’s “Mannequin Skywalker” aboard—successfully reached 66 miles above Earth (considered the boundary between the atmosphere and space), then safely parachuted back.

As far as a timeline for getting astronauts to the moon, Logsdon says NASA still has a lot of work to do. The agency had planned to build a “lunar gateway” orbiting the moon that would serve as a stopping-off point for both moon landings and possible journeys to Mars. But the details haven’t been worked out yet, the Boeing/SLS rocket that would carry astronauts there hasn’t gotten off the ground, and the entire gateway plan is being reviewed right now by NASA officials to see if it still makes sense. “Until NASA finishes this review and says, ‘We are going to set a target date,’ it’s all speculation,” Logsdon says. The SpaceX launch on Friday, however, “is a step toward getting to the moon as soon as all the pieces are in place.”

Before any astronauts arrive on the moon, private space firms will be sending small scientific payloads there to check out the best possible spots for a lunar outpost. In December 2022, Masten Space Systems’s XL-1 lander will deliver eight NASA-sponsored instruments that will be used to assess the composition of the surface, detect water, methane, and carbon dioxide, and evaluate radiation in advance of human missions. And sometime in 2023, Astrobotic’s Griffin lander will put NASA’s VIPER rover on the moon to look for sources of water ice that could eventually be used as fuel for a possible trip to Mars. That mission will be carried by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.

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