Only a few weeks after NASA formally contracted SpaceX to provide three more Crew Dragon missions to the International Space Station (ISS), a pair of astronauts have been identified for the first of those flights—Crew-7—currently slated to launch next year. Leading the mission will be NASA’s Jasmin Moghbeli, a U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant-colonel and only the fourth woman spacecraft commander, joined by pilot Andreas Mogensen of the European Space Agency (ESA). Mogensen, who became Denmark’s first man in space back in September 2015 and was until 2021 deputy chief of the Mission Support Branch of the Astronaut Office, is also set to become the first non-U.S. spacefarer to serve in a piloting position on a U.S. orbital spacecraft, as the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) moves toward routine flight operations.
Almost eight years have now passed since SpaceX and Boeing were selected by NASA in September 2014 for the Commercial Crew transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of the effort to return U.S. astronauts to low-Earth orbit, aboard U.S. vehicles and U.S. rockets, from U.S. soil, since the end of the Space Shuttle Program. As part of its slice of the CCtCap “pie”, SpaceX won a $2.6 billion contract, which included conducting unpiloted and piloted test flights of Crew Dragon and between two and six Post-Certification Missions (PCMs) to deliver rotating crew members for long-duration expeditions to the ISS.
In July 2015, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, Bob Behnken, Suni Williams and Eric Boe were assigned to the first cadre of Commercial Crew astronauts. Training expanded in August 2018, when Hurley and Behnken were named commander and pilot for Demo-2, the first crewed test flight of Crew Dragon to the ISS. On 30 May 2020, almost nine years since the wheels of Atlantis kissed the runway at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) for the final time, Hurley and Behnken roared aloft aboard a ship they had named “Dragon Endeavour”, in honor of the first shuttle they flew in their astronaut careers.
Hurley and Behnken spent more than two months aboard the ISS and returned safely to Earth on 2 August 2000, after nearly 64 days, during which time they supported dozens of research experiments and four sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) with Expedition 63 crewmates Chris Cassidy, Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. Returning to an oceanic splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurley and Behnken became the first U.S. astronauts to complete an end-of-mission water landing since Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) astronauts Tom Stafford, Vance Brand and Deke Slayton in July 1975.
By the time Hurley and Behnken were back on the ground, the next several Crew Dragon crews had been assembled and were deep into training for the first long-duration missions to the station. In November 2020, U.S. astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, together with Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, launched aboard Dragon Resilience and completed a 167-day mission as part of Expeditions 64 and 65. Their increment pushed Glover into first place on the list of the most flight-experienced African-American spacefarers and almost doubled the 84-day Skylab 4 record for the longest single mission by a U.S. spacecraft.
More records fell like ninepins with Crew-2, which saw Endeavour launch on her second mission in April 2021, carrying U.S. astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, plus France’s Thomas Pesquet and Japan’s Aki Hoshide. Endeavour thus became the first U.S. crewed orbital vehicle to log a repeat flight since the final missions of the shuttle, more than a decade before. McArthur, who is married to Behnken, occupied the very same seat occupied by her husband several months earlier. And Crew-2 went on to log 199 days aloft, breaking the old Skylab 4 record twice in a single year.
As a commercial vehicle, of course, SpaceX always had high hopes for non-NASA involvement with Crew Dragon and Shift4Payments billionaire Jared Isaacman privately purchased four seats and a non-ISS mission called “Inspiration4”, which flew aboard Dragon Resilience for two days last September.
Resilience followed Endeavour in logging a second mission but set a Crew Dragon turnaround record of only 4.5 months. Flying shoulder-to-shoulder with physician’s assistant and childhood bone cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux, geologist and science communicator Sian Proctor and Air Force veteran and Lockheed Martin data engineer Chris Sembroski, Isaacman spent two days in space—and enjoyed spectacular views through a unique cupola window, installed in place of the ISS docking mechanism—before returning safely to Earth.
Earlier this spring, Isaacman announced his three-mission “Polaris” initiative, which will feature a pair of all-private, non-ISS Crew Dragon missions, followed by the first crewed flight aboard SpaceX’s in-development Starship. The inaugural mission, “Polaris Dawn”, will launch later in 2022 with Isaacman in command, joined by retired Air Force colonel Scott “Kidd” Poteet and SpaceX Lead Space Operations Engineers Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon.
They will spend up to five days in orbit, aiming for an altitude of over 310 miles (500 kilometers) and performing the first “commercial” EVA in SpaceX-built suits. The mission also emphasizes health research and testing of Starlink’s laser-based communications system in readiness for future deep-space forays.
Meanwhile, Houston, Texas-based Axiom Space, Inc., last year selected former shuttle astronaut, veteran ISS commander and America’s most experienced spacewalker Mike Lopez-Alegria to command Ax-1, the first all-private Crew Dragon mission to the ISS. Joined by Larry Connor of the United States, Mark Pathy of Canada and Israel’s Eytan Stibbe, Lopez-Alegria is set to launch aboard Dragon Endeavour—on its record-setting third flight—no sooner than 3 April.
The quartet’s planned ten-day mission will include eight days living and working aboard the space station. The second of four planned Axiom missions, Ax-2, commanded by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, will fly in early 2023.
Currently aboard the ISS are the Crew-3 team of U.S. astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, together with Germany’s Matthias Maurer, who launched last November aboard the brand-new Dragon Resilience; they are due home late next month. Their places on the sprawling orbital outpost will be taken by the Crew-4 quartet of U.S. astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Bob “Farmer” Hines, plus Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti and NASA’s Jessica Watkins, who will launch aboard a brand-new Crew Dragon, named “Freedom”, no sooner than 19 April.
And later this summer, Crew-5 will launch with U.S. astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, Japan’s Koichi Wakata and possibly Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina. The latter is part of a “seat-bartering” arrangement, which may see U.S. astronaut Frank Rubio in the third seat alongside two Russian cosmonauts on Soyuz MS-22 in September. However, in view of the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine, and the sanctions imposed upon the Kremlin by the West, it remains to be seen how this “seat-bartering” arrangement will play out in practice over the coming months and years.
More recently, last December veteran astronaut Steve Bowen and first-time flyer Woody Hoburg were named as commander and pilot for Crew-6, currently targeted for early 2023. The remainder of their four-member crew—like that of Moghbeli and Mogensen—will be announced at a later date. Moghbeli becomes only the second woman, after Mann, to command a crew on her first flight, and the fourth female spacecraft commander in history, following in the footsteps of shuttle-era astronauts Pam Melroy and Eileen Collins.