The Crew Dragon spacecraft for the first rotation of long-duration U.S. Operational Segment (USOS) personnel aboard the International Space Station (ISS) has arrived safely on the Space Coast and is now deep into processing for its launch later this fall. Designated “Crew-1”, Commander Mike Hopkins, Pilot Victor Glover—destined to become the first African-American astronaut to fly a long-duration voyage to the sprawling orbital outpost—and Mission Specialists Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi will rise from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida no sooner than 23 October. They will spend six months aboard the ISS, joining Expedition 64 Commander Sergei Ryzhikov and crewmates Sergei Kud-Sverchkov and Kate Rubins. Even as their ship reached the Space Coast, the second stage of their Falcon 9 booster was static-fired at SpaceX’s facility in McGregor, Texas, ahead of its own delivery to the Cape.
The Crew Dragon assigned to this mission harbors an eventful ancestry. When SpaceX and Boeing were formally picked in September 2014 to build the Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), the contractual terms required them to execute uncrewed and crewed test flights of their respective vehicles, after which each company would receive at least two and as many as six Post-Certification Missions (PCMs).
SpaceX was awarded its first two PCMs in November 2015 and July 2016. Had the last few years run without a wrinkle, it is likely that the first of these PCM vehicles would have been used to launch Hopkins, Glover, Walker and Noguchi.
Unfortunately, as they invariably do, wrinkles well and truly came along. In March 2019, SpaceX successfully flew its first uncrewed Crew Dragon on the six-day Demo-1 mission to the ISS. Following its smooth return from a voyage which ran like clockwork and exceeded all expectations, the Demo-1 vehicle exploded on the test stand a month later during a static test of its SuperDraco thrusters. The failure was traced to a leaky valve which introduced volatile nitrogen tetroxide into high-pressure helium tubes and a fully successful static fire test was executed without incident last November.
But the loss of the Demo-1 spacecraft led to an unanticipated round of “Crew Dragon Musical Chairs”. It was intended that after its return from space, the Demo-1 vehicle would be turned around in short order and relaunched for a critical In-Flight Abort Test atop a Falcon 9 booster. However, its untimely loss in April 2019 meant that the next Crew Dragon off the SpaceX production line—the ship originally earmarked for the first crewed test flight, Demo-2—was instead retasked for the In-Flight Abort Test.
Consequently, the spacecraft originally meant for Hopkins’ Crew-1 (designated “C206”) went to Demo-2 crewmen Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken and wound up flying a spectacular 64-day mission to the ISS, during which time it gained the moniker of “Endeavour”. And that, in turn, meant the next available Crew Dragon (“C207”), originally meant for the second SpaceX PCM, ended up assigned to Crew-1.
Hopkins and Glover were named to Crew-1 amid great fanfare in August 2018, as part of the initial round of mission-specific Commercial Crew assignments. Always intended as a four-person crew, they were officially joined earlier this year by NASA veteran Shannon Walker and seasoned Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi.
All but Glover have flown before, with Noguchi uniquely becoming the first non-American to log missions aboard three discrete spacecraft types. He previously served aboard Discovery for STS-114 in July 2005—the first post-Columbia shuttle mission—before riding Russia’s Soyuz to orbit in December 2009 to kick off a six-month ISS tour during Expeditions 22 and 23. For her part, Walker logged 5.5 months in space in June-November 2010 as part of Expeditions 24 and 25, whilst Hopkins spent nearly a half-year on the station during Expeditions 37 and 38 between September 2013 and March 2014. Between them, Crew-1 has over 500 days in space and over 33 hours of spacewalking.
Preparing C207 for her forthcoming voyage has taken place on multiple fronts. NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich noted in late June that the spacecraft was at SpaceX’s facility in Hawthorne, Calif., undergoing propulsion system checks and acoustic tests. It was anticipated that the vehicle would be delivered to the Space Coast around the end of July, but C207 eventually arrived on 18 August.
By this time, the targeted launch date for Crew-1 had slipped from “late September” to 23 October, a happy coincidence for the author of this article, as it falls squarely on my birthday.
NASA noted that the slippage was caused by an anticipated full plate of visiting-vehicle comings and goings from the ISS, with Northrop Grumman Corp. slated to launch its NG-14 Cygnus cargo ship on 29 September, Russia primed to launch Sergei Ryzhikov, Sergei Kud-Sverchkov and Kate Rubins aboard Soyuz MS-17 on 14 October and incumbent Expedition 63 crewmen Chris Cassidy, Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner due to wrap up their 6.5-month increment and return to Earth aboard Soyuz MS-16 on 22 October.
As Crew-1’s ship enters its processing flow in earnest for launch two months from now, so too is its Falcon 9 being readied for its own date with destiny. As with Demo-2, Hopkins’ crew will ride a brand-new Falcon 9 core—designated “B1061”—which completed static-fire testing of its nine Merlin 1D+ engines at SpaceX’s McGregor facility in Texas on 25 April.
At the same time, the singular Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the second stage, which will boost Hopkins and company to near-orbital velocity, was also test-fired. The B1061 core was delivered from McGregor to the Cape on 14 July. Following last week’s successful test of the entire second stage, it too will be delivered to the Space Coast for final testing and integration and a customary Static Fire Test on Pad 39A.
In announcing the arrival of Crew-1’s spacecraft in Florida, NASA also noted that “the launch timeframe also allows for a crew handover with…[the] Crew-2 mission next spring”. Current projections are that Hopkins, Glover, Walker and Noguchi will spend six months aboard the ISS with Crew-2 astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Aki Hoshide and Thomas Pesquet due to relieve them.
But it remains unclear as to how long a pair of fully-staffed Crew Dragons—plus a three-member Soyuz contingent; a total of 11 astronauts and cosmonauts—can remain comfortably aboard the station. During the shuttle era, it was not uncommon for 13-strong crews to reside together for more than a week, and it seems not unreasonable that a similarly short “direct handover” will take place as Kimbrough’s crew arrives and that of Hopkins bids its farewells in early 2021.