NASA agrees to fly astronauts on reused Crew Dragon spacecraft

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station on May 31 with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on-board. Credit: NASA

NASA has agreed to allow its astronauts to fly on reused Crew Dragon spaceships and Falcon 9 boosters beginning as soon as SpaceX’s third launch of a crew to the International Space Station, a mission expected to launch next year.

The space agency has modified its $2.7 billion commercial crew contract with SpaceX to permit reuse of spacecraft and rocket hardware. NASA had not previously approved the use of previously-flown spacecraft and rockets on missions carrying the agency’s astronauts into orbit.

In a disclosure dated May 15 and posted on a federal government procurement website, NASA said the contract modification allows for the extension of the Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 test flight — which launched May 30 with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken — from two weeks to up to 119 days.

The launch of Hurley and Behnken on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida marked the first time astronauts have launched into orbit from U.S. soil since the final space shuttle flight took off July 8, 2011.

The two-man crew docked May 31 at the International Space Station, where they will support operations on the orbiting research complex for several months. NASA officials say the Demo-2 test flight is likely to conclude with a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean in August.

Once Hurley and Behnken are back on Earth, NASA engineers will review data from the Crew Dragon test flight before formally certifying the SpaceX crew capsule design for operational crew rotation missions to and from the space station.

SpaceX is under contract to fly six of these “post-certification missions” through the mid-2020s.

The contract modification announced by NASA also requires SpaceX to participate in additional joint test training with search and rescue teams from the U.S. military, which would deploy from Patrick Air Force Base in Florida and other locations to retrieve astronauts in the event of an emergency abort during launch.

SpaceX, NASA and the military search and rescue teams conducted joint training exercises leading up to the Crew Dragon Demo-2 launch. Those training sessions will continue before all the next six Crew Dragon missions under contract to NASA.

In exchange for the new NASA requirements, the space agency will allow SpaceX to reuse Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 boosters for NASA astronaut missions. NASA says SpaceX could begin reusing Crew Dragon vehicles and Falcon 9 first stages on crewed launches beginning with the second post-certification mission, or Crew-2.

The Crew-2 launch is scheduled in 2021. The Crew-1 mission — SpaceX’s first operational astronaut flight — is slated to fly with a brand new Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket.

“Consistent with the public-private partnership strategy for the Commercial Crew Program, NASA specifies ‘what’ safety requirements must be met, and industry is free to propose ‘how’ to meet those requirements,” wrote Josh Finch, a NASA spokesperson, in an emailed response to questions from Spaceflight Now.

“In this case, SpaceX has proposed to reuse future Falcon 9 and/or Crew Dragon systems or components for NASA missions to the International Space Station because they believe it will be beneficial from a safety and/or cost standpoint,” Finch wrote. “NASA performed an in-depth review and determined that the terms of the overall contract modification were in the best interests of the government.”

According to Finch, SpaceX will propose a reuse plan for future crew missions, beginning as early as the Crew-2 flight. He wrote that a specific plan has not been developed yet to proposed which Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 boosters might be reused for the Crew-2 mission and subsequent flights.

“Also, NASA will need to approve that plan after it is proposed by SpaceX,” Finch wrote.

The modification to SpaceX’s commercial crew contract, which was originally signed with NASA in 2014, includes no exchange of funds, according to Finch.

Each of SpaceX’s operational crew rotation flights to the space station will carry up to four astronauts, including space fliers from NASA and the space station’s international partners.

NASA has assigned astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker to the Crew-1 mission. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi will join the U.S. astronauts on the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

The launch date most recently announced for the Crew-1 flight was Aug. 30, but that could be pushed back to September if the Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 test flight comes back to Earth in August. NASA is expected to take one-to-two months to review data from the Crew Dragon test flight before giving the green light for SpaceX’s first operational launch with astronauts.

SpaceX has reused Falcon 9 first stages on 37 missions — with a perfect success record — since launching the first previously-flown Falcon booster in 2017. SpaceX also reused Dragon cargo capsules up to three times on resupply missions to the space station.

The first version of SpaceX’s Dragon supply freighter has been retired, and SpaceX plans to fly a cargo variant of the Crew Dragon spacecraft for future logistics missions to the space station. SpaceX also refers to the new generation of space station servicing vehicles as Dragon 2, with crew and cargo configurations.

The human-rated Dragon includes seats, crew displays, life support systems and SuperDraco abort engines, which would be activated to push the capsule away from its rocket if it fails during launch. The SuperDracos will not fly on Dragon capsules configured for cargo missions.

NASA previously approved plans to reuse the Dragon 2 vehicles for cargo delivery flights to the space station. SpaceX says the Dragon 2 cargo capsules can fly to the space station and back up to five times, an improvement

Boeing’s Starliner capsule, which is also designed to carry astronauts, will also be reused on crew missions to the space station. The Starliner lands under parachutes on land.

Boeing has manufactured two Starliner spacecraft for its missions to and from the International Space Station.

But an unpiloted Starliner test flight in December failed to reach the International Space Station due to a misconfigured mission elapsed timer, which caused the spacecraft to burn too much fuel after it separated from its United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. Engineers traced the problem to a software programming error, and the Starliner spacecraft aborted its mission to the space station and safely returned to Earth.

Boeing plans a second Starliner test flight without astronauts later this year. If that goes well, the Starliner could be ready to carry a crew to the space station on a demonstration mission in the spring of 2021, before kicking off six operational crew rotation flights under contract to NASA.

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