Earlier this summer, SpaceX launched NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on a historic mission to the International Space Station. It was the first time that a private launch company had ever boosted astronauts into orbit, but the mission was fundamentally a test flight to prove that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule was safe for human occupants. Behnken and Hurley safely splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean in August after a two-month stay on the ISS. NASA officials have reviewed the data from the mission and on Tuesday they certified SpaceX to begin regular crewed flights to the ISS as an operational part of the agency’s human spaceflight program. It all starts this weekend.
On Saturday evening, SpaceX is scheduled to launch four astronauts for its Crew-1 mission. Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Michael Hopkins are flying for NASA and Soichi Noguchi is flying for the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. Except for Glover, all of the astronauts have previously been to the ISS, but this will be the longest mission any of them have ever flown. After a quick eight-and-a-half hour journey to the space station, the crew will spend six months in orbit.
The Crew-1 mission officially marks the return of operational crewed spaceflight for the United States. For the past decade, NASA astronauts have had to hitch a ride on Russian rockets; it was the longest period in the history of the agency’s human spaceflight program that it lacked its own crewed launchers. ”We are returning the United States’ capability for full launch services and we’re very honored to be a part of that,” Benji Reed, SpaceX’s senior director of human spaceflight, said during a Tuesday press conference.
The mission was originally scheduled to launch on October 31, which would have coincided with the 20th anniversary of the first space shuttle expedition to the ISS. But in early October, during a non-NASA mission, SpaceX experienced some issues with a blocked valve in the engine gas generator of its Falcon 9 rocket. The gas generator is used to power the turbopumps that pressurize the rocket’s fuel before it’s combusted in the main engines. NASA officials decided to hold the crew launch until engineers at SpaceX and the agency identified and resolved the issue. “We worked hand in hand to look into that anomaly over the last month,” Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, said during the press conference. “Many times, when you have something happen, you don't find the root cause. But here we were able to, and I feel really good about this vehicle.”
SpaceX was one of two companies tapped to develop a spacecraft for NASA’s commercial crew program. But the other company, Boeing, has been plagued by setbacks. In late 2019, its Starliner crew capsule suffered a critical software failure during an uncrewed test launch to the ISS, which set the program back at least a year. On Tuesday, Stich told reporters that there wouldn’t be another Starliner test flight until the first quarter of 2021.
Until Boeing is ready to go, NASA will rely on SpaceX for access to the ISS. Reed said that the company will fly seven crew and cargo missions to the station over the next 15 months. “That means that starting with Crew-1, there will be a continuous presence of SpaceX Dragons in orbit,” Reed told reporters. And starting with SpaceX’s resupply mission in December, there will often be two Dragons docked at a time.
SpaceX’s next crewed launch for NASA won’t happen until March, when the company will carry Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur for NASA, Akihiko Hoshide for Japan, and Thomas Pesquet for the European Space Agency. Not long after that, SpaceX is expected to begin launching private astronauts to the ISS, as well. Last year, the billionaire hotelier Robert Bigelow announced that he had reserved four launches and would be selling the seats for $52 million each. Axiom Space, a company developing a private space station, has also booked a ride and is expected to send Tom Cruise and three other astronauts to the ISS to shoot a movie later next year.
In the meantime, you can watch the SpaceX Crew-1 launch on NASA’s livestream. The launch is scheduled for 7:49 pm ET on Saturday. It’s an instantaneous launch window, so if it doesn’t happen right on time, SpaceX will have to try again at 7:27 pm ET on Sunday.