WASHINGTON – NASA officials said on March 1 that the next SpaceX commercial crew mission to the International Space Station is still scheduled for the end of April, but that a Boeing unmanned test flight faces further delays.
The Crew-2 mission, a flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft with astronauts from NASA, the European Space Agency and the Japanese Aviation Agency to the station, is still on track for a launch no earlier than April 20, agency officials said during a briefing.
The current launch date may change a few days “to optimize some of the orbital mechanics and launch options,” said Steve Stich, head of NASA’s commercial crew program. The agency is trying to fit the mission under a window between the mid-April departure of the Soyuz MS-1
This schedule should also include the return to the Crew-1 mission on Crew Dragon, which is currently docked for the station. Stich said the goal is to get this spacecraft back to Earth by May 9 to avoid “dark landing opportunities” for the spacecraft’s splashdown.
Neither NASA nor SpaceX sees any major challenges at launch in late April, even after the shutdown of a Merlin engine at a Feb. 15 Falcon 9 launch that prevented the booster from landing. “Everyone is on track and ready for an April 20 launch launch date,” said Benji Reed, senior director of human space programs at SpaceX, during 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 flew past the Demo-2 mission last year, and workers have spent the last many months renovating it for the upcoming flight.
SpaceX has worked with NASA on the renovation process and has determined which components need to be replaced to ensure crew safety and what can be stored. “I can happily say that the vast majority of the vehicle is aircraft tested,” Reed said. Some valves and parts of the thermal protection system change, he said, along with parachutes that are replaced after each flight. “Otherwise, it really is the same vehicle that is very carefully inspected, carefully prepared and refurbished as needed and ready to fly.”
SpaceX has also “reinforced” the structure of the spacecraft to improve the acceptable wind speeds and wave heights for splashing down, thus expanding the landing possibilities. “This is one of the most important updates we have made on this kite,” he said.
Stich added that the spacecraft has improved pad disruption performance in the form of additional propellant for SuperDraco thrusters, which also improves launch constraints by allowing launches when there is stronger wind on land. “I really look at this flight as an interruption improvement flight,” he said.
The Crew-2 mission was scheduled to be the third crew-capable spacecraft to visit the ISS in April. It will precede the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft, which is set to launch on April 9th.
NASA had planned the launch of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle on the unoccupied Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 mission by April 2nd. This mission will be a reflight for the original, flawed OFT mission in December 2019, which was unable to dock with the station due to software issues.
However, it is now unlikely that the mission, which was recently delayed from the end of March, will be ready to start in early April. “We will move from 4/2,” Stich said. Preparations for the mission are about two weeks behind schedule, he said, in part due to winter weather and associated power outages in the Houston area that delayed software testing for the spacecraft by a week.
It is unclear when OFT-2 may take place due to the upcoming Soyuz and Crew-2 missions and then availability in the eastern area of Cape Canaveral for the Atlas 5 launch of the mission. “It’s a very busy time frame on the space station,” Stich said. “And then it’s a busy time in the field, so we work hand in hand with Boeing to find out when the launch date will be. We will have to stand up for further development, exactly when that flight flies. ”