Last night, SpaceX and NASA launched a mission which is expected to secure a new record for the longest single human spaceflight by the United States. Crew-1 Commander Mike Hopkins and Pilot Victor Glover, accompanied by Mission Specialists Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi, launched aboard Dragon Resilience atop a Falcon 9 booster from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida at 7:27 p.m. EST Sunday.
Current expectations call for them to dock at the International Space Station (ISS) at about 11 p.m. EST Monday, after which the crew will spend several months aboard the sprawling orbital complex. Although an exact duration has not been set for Crew-1, their landing is not expected before next April, far exceeding the length of Skylab 4—launched on this day, back in 1973—whose astronauts spent 84 days in space.
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Following a successful launch last night, Dragon Resilience was safely inserted into an initial low-Earth orbit with a perigee of 118 miles (190 km) and an apogee of 130 miles (210 km), inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator. She separated smoothly from the second stage of her Falcon 9 a little over 12 minutes after launch.
And at T+12 minutes and 48 seconds, the spacecraft’s nose cone, bearing the docking adapter, was unfurled, ahead of a 28-hour and 18.5-orbit rendezvous profile to reach the ISS. But amid all the euphoria, it was not all smooth-sailing on what is, after all, an “operational”, but by no means “routine” mission.
An issue arose shortly into the mission pertaining to heater controls on the spacecraft’s propellant system. “Flight controllers in Hawthorne, Calif., determined the control limits were set too tightly,” NASA noted in an Monday morning update, “and resolved the issue by resetting the limits and rebooting the heaters.”
Following docking at the ISS tonight, Dragon Resilience is expected to remain aloft until next spring, with ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano noting in Friday’s post-Flight Readiness Review (FRR) press conference an expectation that Hopkins and his crew would return in the April timeframe.
That will easily surpass Skylab 4, which launched on this day, way back in 1973. At present, the 84-day Skylab 4 mission to America’s first space station between 16 November 1973 and 8 February 1974 remains the longest single orbital spaceflight by a crewed U.S. spacecraft.
Aboard a modified Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM), Commander Gerry Carr—who died earlier this year—and his crewmates, Science Pilot Ed Gibson and Pilot Bill Pogue, conducted no fewer than four sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA), supported a multitude of research experiments and observed the visitation of Comet Kohoutek.
But whereas Hopkins, Glover, Walker and Noguchi appear to have adapted well to the strange microgravity environment, the astronauts of Skylab 4 had a somewhat less pleasant first few hours in space. In fact, their launch was originally targeted for 10 November 1973, but was postponed following the discovery of more than a dozen hairline cracks in the stabilizing fins at the base of the Saturn IB rocket.
Much of the damage was induced by age and months of exposure to the salty Florida air, but the cracks prompted technicians to dub the vehicle with the nickname “Ol’ Humpty Dumpty”.
On launch morning, Carr and his crew boarded their spacecraft to be greeted by a message from the Saturn IB repair team. “Good luck,” it read, “from all the King’s horses and all the King’s men!”
At 10 a.m. EST on 16 November 1973, the rocket roared away from historic Pad 39B at KSC and the men’s pulses skyrocketed with it; Pogue’s accelerated from 50 to 120 at the instant of liftoff. Ascent vibrations were so severe that the crew struggled to read their instruments and the incessant din made it difficult to hear each other’s voices through the intercom between their suits.
Carr compared the experience to being an insect, glued to a paint-shaker, or riding a train with square wheels. After the first stage was jettisoned, however, and the second stage took over, the G-forces dropped from 4G to 1.5G and the remainder of the journey to orbit was much more smooth.
Eight hours later, the crew docked to Skylab and it was intended for them to remain aboard the command module until the following morning, to aid their adaptation before entering the large, disorientating open volume of the station itself. They worked late into the night, stowing equipment, and at some stage sickness gripped Bill Pogue.
It initially took the form of a headache and nausea and attempts to eat some food—a mouthful of stewed tomatoes, the only item left on his evening-meal ration—quickly (and unsurprisingly) sent him scurrying for his sick-bag.
Thus, in one of the great ironies of Skylab 4, Pogue (a former Thunderbird pilot) suffered space sickness and yet his non-Thunderbird crewmates did not. It was another indication that the medical community’s understanding of the ailment was still improperly understood and, even today, its causes and predictors of which astronauts it might affect remain unclear.
However, at that particular moment, the crew’s main concern was what to tell Mission Control. Skylab had drifted out of radio communications and Gibson suggested disposing of the sick bag in the trash airlock and keeping quiet about the matter.
Carr agreed that it would prevent the medical community getting “all fuzzed” and hopefully enable them to get their busy slate of mission tasks underway. They put Pogue into Skylab’s docking tunnel, in the hope that air from a cabin fan might make him feel better, and Carr told Mission Control that his crewmate had experienced nausea and had not eaten all of one of his meals.
Unfortunately, one of Pogue’s responsibilities was the communications system and—as specified in his checklist—he had left a switch to record their in-cabin conversations in the “on” position. Whilst the astronauts slept, Mission Control downloaded the tape and heard their entire conversation about disposing of the evidence.
Next morning, the 17th, Pogue felt a little better, but took things slowly as he and his crewmates attempted a light breakfast. Later that day, Chief Astronaut Al Shepard came onto the communications loop and addressed Carr directly.
“I just wanted to tell you,” he said, “that on the matter of your status reports, we think you made a fairly serious error in judgement here in the report of your condition.”
Carr accepted the rebuke. “Okay, Al, I admit it was a dumb decision.”
It can be hoped that the debilitating ailment of space sickness will evade the astronauts of Crew-1, but their link with Skylab 4 will be an enduring one. Next 7 February, they will pass Carr, Gibson and Pogue as record-holders for the longest single U.S. human spaceflight on a U.S.-built spacecraft, launched atop a U.S. rocket, and from U.S. soil.
Of course, many Americans have flown longer missions than 84 days over the last quarter-century—68 men and women in total—stretching right back to Norm Thagard’s pioneering stay aboard the Mir space station in March-July 1995. Some launched on the shuttle, others landed on the shuttle, whilst still others flew to and from their orbital home in the sky aboard Russia’s venerable Soyuz.
Yet none of them, until Crew-1 and Dragon Resilience, would see a U.S.-built vehicle in residence throughout the entirety of a long-duration mission. Just last summer, Dragon Endeavour managed 64 days at the end of Demo-2, but even that fell three weeks shy of shattering the Skylab 4 record.
As such, as this historic mission gets underway and heads for an ISS docking at 11 p.m. EST Monday, the records will continue to fall like ninepins. In addition to breaking the duration “ceiling” set by Skylab 4, nearly five decades ago, the Crew-1 astronauts are riding the first operational commercially-built vehicle into low-Earth orbit, Glover will become the first African-American long-duration space station resident and Noguchi will join Wally Schirra and John Young as only the third human to have launched from Earth aboard three different types of spacecraft.