SpaceX, ULA Primed for Five Launches in June, CRS-22 Dragon Set to Fly Thursday

The CRS-21 Dragon approaches the space station for docking last December. Photo Credit: NASA

Favorable weather looks set to predominate for the first Space Coast launch of June, targeted for 1:29 p.m. EDT Thursday from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). A brand-new Falcon 9—the first time this year that SpaceX will launch a never-before-flown booster—is set to deliver its own brand of fire and thunder when it launches the CRS-22 Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS). It will kick of an action-packed month, which is expected to see three more Falcon 9s lift the powerful SXM-8 communications satellite for SiriusXM, the fifth Block III member of the Space Force’s Global Positioning System (GPS) and the Transporter-2 rideshare mission. And towards the end of June, United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) venerable Atlas V will deliver the Space Test Program (STP)-3 mixed payload aloft.

Video Credit: NASA

Weather conditions for Thursday’s launch are currently pegged at about 80-percent-favorable, deteriorating slightly to 70 percent in the event of a 24-hour slip to Friday. The main issues are a potential violation of the Cumulus Cloud Rule and the Flight Through Precipitation Rule.

“A weak surface front situated across the region this Memorial Day remains the focus for showers and thunderstorms,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base in a Monday morning update. “However, this boundary will wash out over the next couple of days while a trough aloft gradually fills through midweek. This will allow surface high pressure across the Central Atlantic to build across the region this week, resulting in progressively deeper southeasterly flow.”

Members of the Expedition 65 crew enjoy a light moment last month. Megan McArthur (right) and Shane Kimbrough (top) will monitor the arrival of the CRS-22 Dragon on Saturday morning. Photo Credit: NASA

Designated “B1067”, the booster set to loft Thursday’s mission will be embarking on the very first flight of its career. This also represents the first occasion in 2021 that a maiden Falcon 9 will take to the skies; the most recent “rookie” rocket was B1063, which flew out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., last November carrying the collaborative U.S./European Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich ocean altimetry mission.

Remarkably, the 16 missions launched in the first half of this year have used only seven Falcon 9 first stages, one of which came to an unhappy end in February when it missed its Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) landing due to a hardware fatigue issue.

The first of SpaceX’s CRS2 missions was launched in December 2020. Video Credit: AmericaSpace

The new booster completed testing at SpaceX’s facility in McGregor, Texas, in April, before it was transported to the Space Coast, arriving at the Cape in mid-May for a shorter-than-normal pre-launch processing campaign. The ASDS “Of Course I Still Love You”—which is slated to recover B1067 after its Thursday mission—put to sea out of Port Canaveral on Saturday, bound for a position about 188 miles (300 km) downrange. If all goes well, it is expected that B1067 will go on to deliver Crew-3 astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn, Matthias Maurer and Kayla Barron to the ISS in October.

CRS-22 is the second mission under the second-round Commercial Resupply Services (CRS2) contract, definitized between NASA and SpaceX back in January 2016. Under the terms of the contract, SpaceX was guaranteed a minimum of six flights to the ISS with its new Cargo Dragon vehicle.

One of the iROSA deployable solar array wings. Photo Credit: Deployable Space Systems

The first of these flights, CRS-21, was launched last December and returned safely to Earth in mid-January. Unlike its predecessors under the earlier CRS1 contract—which saw 20 launches between October 2012 and March 2020, preceded by a demonstration test flight in May 2012—the new Cargo Dragon can autonomously dock and undock (rather than “berth” and “unberth”) at the space station, which reduces demands upon crew time. It can also support a correspondingly larger haul of payloads.

And CRS-22’s payload haul is indeed a complex one, totaling 7,337 pounds (3,883 kg) of cargo, equipment and supplies for the station’s seven-person Expedition 65 increment, commanded by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Aki Hoshide. Assuming an on-time launch on Thursday, the Dragon will dock at International Docking Adapter (IDA)-3 on the space-facing (or “zenith”) port of the Harmony node at about 5 a.m. EDT Saturday, closely monitored by Expedition 65 astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur. It is expected to remain docked to the station for about six weeks, with a scheduled departure and oceanic splashdown in early July.

Expedition 64’s Victor Glover works to install the first iROSA modification kit in February. Photo Credit: NASA

Taking pride of place on the CRS-22 mission patch (and in Dragon’s unpressurized trunk) are the first pair of ISS Roll-Out Solar Arrays (iROSAs), which were formally delivered to prime contractor Boeing early last month by Jacksonville, Fla.-based aerospace firm Redwire Space, Inc. As previously reported by AmericaSpace, NASA and Boeing announced in January their intent to supply six new solar arrays, which will partially cover (and “shadow”) six of the station’s eight “legacy” Solar Array Wings (SAWs). This is expected to furnish an electrical power “hike” of 20-30 percent, from 160 to 215 kilowatts overall, in readiness for future ISS expansion and customers’ burgeoning payload needs.  

The two arrays heading uphill on Thursday weigh a combined 3,042 pounds (1,380 kg) and will be installed to cover (and “shadow”) the oldest set of legacy arrays—Power Channels 2B and 4B—on the P-6 truss segment, which was installed way back in the fall of 2000. “The specific iROSA configuration was selected after careful consideration to balance observed degradation in the legacy solar arrays with the anticipated demand on each channel,” NASA’s Gary Jordan told AmericaSpace.

NASA’s CRS-22 patch includes the first set of ISS Roll-Out Solar Arrays (iROSAs) in pride of place, including their eventual siting location on the far-port side of the station’s Integrated Truss Structure (ITS). Image Credit: NASA

Earlier this spring, Expedition 64 spacewalkers Kate Rubins, Victor Glover and Soichi Noguchi worked with no small measure of difficulty to install modification kits which will facilitate the installation of the first iROSA set. And on 16 and 20 June, if all goes well, Expedition 65 spacewalkers Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet will perform a pair of 6.5-hour sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) to install the arrays. Two more iROSA pairs are due to head uphill on SpaceX’s CRS-25 and CRS-26 missions next year.

With the iROSA thus dominating Dragon’s trunk, the pressurized segment of the spacecraft will be brimming with science and technology for Expedition 65 and beyond. Totaling 4,295 pounds (1,948 kg), almost half of this haul comprises science investigations, with smaller quantities of EVA equipment, vehicle hardware, computer resources and crew supplies. And it is expected that Dragon will bring about 5,300 pounds (2,400 kg) of payloads back home when it returns to Earth in July.

Expedition 65 astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Aki Hoshide service space suits in the Quest airlock on the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: NASA

It promises to be a dramatic month for SpaceX, which currently has four Falcon 9 launches on its books. Assuming Thursday’s launch of CRS-22 goes smoothly, the heavyweight SXM-8 communications satellite—flying on behalf of New York-headquartered Sirius XM—is expected to ride the twice-used B1061 core from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., early Sunday.

Around 17 June, the veteran B1062 booster will make its second voyage to lift the fifth member of the Block III Global Positioning System (GPS) into Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) for the Space Force. And towards the end of the month, a Falcon 9 will deliver the Transporter-2 rideshare mission to Sun-synchronous orbit, which includes 36 microsats, CubeSats and hosted payloads from seven nations being flown by Spaceflight Industries, Inc.

SXM-8 is expected to ride the B1061 Falcon 9 core, which previously saw service in November 2020 and April 2021 to lift the astronauts of Crew-1 and Crew-2 to the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

If each of these missions flies as intended, June will close as SpaceX’s second consecutive month to have seen four flights. In May, four boosters—including the first-ever, ten-times-flown Falcon 9—lifted a grand total of 232 Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites, as well as a pair of small rideshare payloads.

That followed previous four-flight months in March and last November. And with United Launch Alliance (ULA) also targeting 23 June for its venerable Atlas V with the multi-manifest Space Test Program (STP)-3 payload from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at the Cape, June may yet see five missions from the Space Coast.

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