A day later than originally planned, SpaceX will launch a brand-new Falcon 9 core, a brand-new Crew Dragon spacecraft and a brand-new team of astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday evening. Liftoff of the four-person Crew-1—Commander Mike Hopkins, Pilot Victor Glover and Mission Specialists Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi—is now targeted to occur from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida at 7:27 p.m. EST.
As previously outlined by AmericaSpace, this one-day slip and the shifting sands of orbital dynamics means that Crew-1 will follow a longer rendezvous profile to reach the ISS, lasting about 28 hours and 18.5 orbits of Earth.
“Teams moved the launch by one day because of onshore winds and to enable recovery of the first-stage booster, which is planned to be reused to launch the Crew-2 mission next year,” NASA noted. “The booster is expected to land on the recovery ship about nine minutes after launch.” And the first-stage assigned to this mission, B1061, is only the fourth “new” Falcon 9 core to have taken flight so far in 2020. Of the 20 launches completed so far in this most unfortunate and tragic of years, all but three have used veteran boosters.
After boosting Crew-1 uphill for the first 2.5 minutes of flight, B1061 will separate from the Falcon 9 and land on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, situated offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. With B1061 expected to lift Crew-2 astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Thomas Pesquet and Akihiko Hoshide as soon as March 2021, it remains to be seen if the booster will see more service in the interim.
Weather conditions do not look particularly favorable for Sunday evening’s launch attempt, with 45th Weather Squadron meteorologists at Patrick Air Force Base predicting only a 50-50 chance that everything will shape up in time for Hopkins and his crew to go. Saturday night’s expected arrival of a diffuse frontal boundary is expected to bring “better rain chances” into Sunday and “scattered showers” throughout the day and during the launch window.
Principal concerns are a possible violation of the Cumulus Cloud, Flight Through Precipitation and Surface Electric Field Rules. According to the 45th, a scrub past Sunday will see the next available opportunity on Tuesday, when conditions are expected to be around 80-percent-favorable for Crew-1 to fly.
Assuming an on-time liftoff tomorrow, Hopkins, Glover, Walker and Noguchi will miss out on an abbreviated 8.5-hour rendezvous profile to reach the ISS in just 5.5 laps of the Home Planet. Instead, they will revert to a “standard” 28-hour approach regime, with an anticipated docking at International Docking Adapter (IDA)-2—at the forward end of the Harmony node—at about 11 p.m. EST Monday.
“Rendezvous profile is almost identical to DM-2 in terms of planned burns,” NASA’s Dan Huot recently told AmericaSpace. “Major difference will be no manual flight tests on Crew-1, so if everything goes well there will be no manual flight.”
And when they dock at the station late Monday night, Crew-1 will become the 100th team of humans to successfully reach the ISS since the STS-88 shuttle astronauts, more than two decades ago. It was somewhat fitting that STS-88 Commander Bob Cabana was on hand to greet them in his current capacity as KSC Director when they arrived in Florida last weekend.
All told, 37 shuttle missions moored at the sprawling orbital outpost between December 1998 and July 2011, delivering eight permanent pressurized modules—three nodes, the U.S. Destiny, Japanese Kibo and European Columbus labs, the Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) and the Quest airlock—and ten segments of the Integrated Truss Structure (ITS), which houses the station’s four massive pairs of electricity-generating solar arrays, radiators and batteries. Shuttles also exchanged crew members and delivered cargo to the ISS.
Added to that impressive list, 61 crewed Soyuz vehicles have reached the station between November 2000 and last month, ensuring an unbroken period of habitation by Russian, American and International Partner (IP) astronauts and cosmonauts which has now spanned more than 20 years. And with Crew Dragon having flown once with astronauts earlier in 2020, it is left to Hopkins and his crew to snare the coveted No. 100 title.
After the completion of pressurization and leak checks, the hatches into the ISS will be opened and Hopkins, Glover, Walker and Noguchi will be welcomed aboard by Expedition 63 Commander Sergei Ryzhikov and his crewmates Sergei Kud-Sverchkov and Kate Rubins. This will mark the first occasion that the station will have played host to a full-time, long-duration crew of seven people.
Operated on crews of three from 2000-2003, then by two-person “caretaker” crews during the post-Columbia downtime from 2003-2006, the station’s long-term population gradually increased back to three in July 2006 and eventually up to six in 2009.
But with plans for Commercial Crew vehicles to lift four crew members, and with three others flying twice per year aboard Russia’s Soyuz, the expansion of the ISS population to seven members is expected to contribute significantly to on-board science.
And it promises to be a busy mission. Expedition 64 is expected to welcome no less than seven visiting vehicles, including two flights—CRS-21 and CRS-22—by SpaceX’s new Cargo Dragon in December and March, a pair of Russian Progress cargo ships in the first quarter of 2021, Northrop Grumman’s NG-15 Cygnus in February, the long-awaited second uncrewed test of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner just after New Year, and the crewed Soyuz MS-18 in April. Up to five EVAs are planned, including two by Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov in November and February, and possibly three U.S. spacewalks later in the fall.
The Russian EVAs—the first of which is due next Wednesday, 18 November—are tasked with preparing for the new Nauka (“Science”) research lab and the planned disposal of the long-serving Pirs (“Pier”) module, which has been an integral part of the space station since September 2001. As such, it will become the first long-serving, permanent component of the ISS to be decommissioned and deorbited. Currently located on the nadir side of the Zvezda module, the departure of Pirs will open up a docking port for the arrival of Nauka, possibly as soon as next April.
Although names have not been announced for who will perform the USOS EVAs, there will certainly be no shortage of experience, with Rubins and Hopkins having both performed two spacewalks apiece on their first missions and Noguchi three during his STS-114 flight.
Key objectives include the installation of the Columbus Ka-Band Antenna (COL-Ka) and activation of the Bartolomeo payloads-anchoring platform on Europe’s Columbus lab—delivered to the station aboard SpaceX’s CRS-20 Dragon last March—together with the installation of a new lithium-ion battery on the P-4 truss segment, which blew a fuse last year.
Dragon Resilience and her four astronauts are expected to take a short flight before the end of 2020 to relocate their ship from IDA-2 on the forward port of Harmony to IDA-3 on the space-facing (or “zenith”) port. This is in readiness for the arrival of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner in the first week of January for its second uncrewed test flight.
This will mark the first time that a Commercial Crew vehicle has moved to the “backup” IDA-3 port. After this relocation, Dragon Resilience will remain at IDA-3 for the remainder of her ISS stay. “We will not do another port relocation after the Crew-1 Dragon relocates,” Mr. Huot told us. “It’ll remain at [Harmony] zenith until it undocks for return home.”
And the return date for Crew-1 can only be hinted at present, with Hopkins suggesting a full-duration length of between six and seven months. “Exact end-date hasn’t been decided,” said Mr. Huot. “It will largely be driven by the Crew-2 launch date, since we plan to do a direct handover.” Current projections are that Crew-2 astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Thomas Pesquet and Akihiko Hoshide will launch in late March 2021. And on Friday, ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano pointed to April 2021 as the most likely return date for Crew-1.