December 5, 2020

SpaceX crew launch set for Nov. 14


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NASA astronaut Victor Glover, commander Mike Hopkins, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, and mission specialist Shannon Walker (left to right) will launch on SpaceX’s first operational Crew Dragon flight to the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX

After a two-week delay to evaluate a concern with Falcon 9 rocket engines, NASA and SpaceX have set Nov. 14 as the target launch date for the first operational Crew Dragon flight to the International Space Station, kicking off a half-year expedition in orbit for three U.S. astronauts and a veteran Japanese space flier.

NASA announced the new target launch date late Monday. The Crew Dragon spaceship is set for liftoff from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 7:49 p.m. EST on Nov. 14 (0049 GMT on Nov. 15) atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

If the mission blasts off as scheduled, the Crew Dragon and its four-person crew will glide to an automated linkup with the International Space Station’s Harmony module around 4:15 a.m. EST (0915 GMT) on Nov. 15, about eight-and-a-half after launch.

NASA commander Mike Hopkins, spacecraft pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialists Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi — of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency — will ride the Crew Dragon spaceship to the space station. Hopkins and his crewmates will join space station commander Sergey Ryzhikov, Russian flight engineer Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins on the international research outpost, raising the lab’s long-duration crew to seven people for the first time.

The mission set for launch next month is designated Crew-1. It follows a 64-day Crew Dragon test flight to the space station that launched in May with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.

The successful test flight set the stage for the start of regular SpaceX crew rotation flights to the space station under contract to NASA.

The Crew-1 launch was delayed from Oct. 31 to allow time for SpaceX and NASA engineers to investigate a potential issue with Merlin rocket engines on the Falcon 9 rocket.

The engine concern appeared during an Oct. 2 launch attempt of a Falcon 9 rocket with a GPS satellite at Cape Canaveral, prompting computers controlling the final seconds of the countdown to abort the mission just two seconds prior to liftoff.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, tweeted after the abort that the countdown was stopped after an “unexpected pressure rise in the turbomachinery gas generator,” referring to equipment used on the rocket’s Merlin main engines. The gas generators on the Merlin 1D engines drives the engines’ turbopumps.

After the GPS launch abort SpaceX removed engines from the Falcon 9 rocket and took them to a test facility in McGregor, Texas, for further investigation. Last week, NASA said SpaceX will replace one of the Merlin engines on the Falcon 9 rocket for the Crew-1 mission, along with an engine on a different Falcon 9 rocket set to boost the NASA-European Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich oceanography satellite into orbit Nov. 10 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

“The Crew-1 mission will launch a few days after the Nov. 10 scheduled launch of NASA’s Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich mission on a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, following a thorough review of launch vehicle performance,” NASA said in a statement Monday.

NASA and SpaceX officials plan to brief reporters on the Merlin engine investigation Wednesday.

SpaceX’s next Crew Dragon spacecraft, named Resilience, was attached to its unpressurized trunk Oct. 2 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: NASA

During the engine investigation, SpaceX has continued to launch missions with the company’s own Starlink internet satellites. Three successful Falcon 9 flights Oct. 6, Oct. 18, and Oct. 24 successfully delivered 180 Starlink satellites to orbit.

SpaceX plans another launch attempt with the U.S. military’s next GPS navigation satellite as soon as 6:28 p.m. EST (2328 GMT) on Nov. 4 from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A U.S. Space Force spokesperson referred questions on the engine investigation to SpaceX, and a SpaceX spokesperson did not respond to questions from Spaceflight Now.

The Nov. 4 launch opportunity for the Falcon 9 rocket with the military’s GPS 3 SV04 mission hinges on an on-time liftoff of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from nearby pad 41 at Cape Canaveral at 5:58 p.m. EST (2258 GMT) on Nov. 3. ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket will carry a classified payload into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency.

If the Atlas 5 launch is delayed a day, the Falcon 9 flight with the GPS satellite is expected to be pushed back 24 hours until Nov. 5.

Aside from the GPS, Sentinel-6, and Crew-1 missions, SpaceX has several more Falcon 9 flights in its backlog that could launch as soon as next month.

They include the launch of another classified for the NRO on a Falcon 9 rocket, and a Falcon 9 flight with another batch of Starlink internet satellites.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.


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