Next Crew Dragon launch set for April 22

Pictured from left are NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, and NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough. Credit: NASA

NASA and SpaceX have set April 22 as the target launch date for the next Crew Dragon flight to the International Space Station. The all-veteran, four-person crew will be the first to ride a previously-flown Falcon 9 booster and a reused Dragon spacecraft, and a NASA official said this week that the launcher and capsule are in “really good shape” as refurbishment wraps up at Cape Canaveral.

The Crew Dragon “Endeavour” spacecraft — the same capsule that flew to the space station last year with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken — is scheduled to blast off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The launch time April 22 is set for 6:11 a.m. EDT (1011 GMT), a NASA spokesperson said.

NASA confirmed the April 22 launch date Friday, a two-day delay from a previous target launch date of April 20. NASA and SpaceX officials said earlier this week the launch was likely to slip a “couple of days” to enable a more “optimized” trajectory to reach the space station after liftoff.

Assuming the mission — designated Crew-2 — takes off as scheduled April 22, the Crew Dragon will dock with the space station around 7:05 a.m. EDT (1105 GMT) on April 23, the NASA spokesperson told Spaceflight Now.

Veteran NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough will command the Crew-2 mission. Kimbrough, making his third trip into orbit, will be joined by second-time space flier Megan McArthur, who will serve as pilot of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet will accompany Kimbrough and McArthur to the space station on a planned six-month expedition.

Hoshide and Pesquet will be on their third and second space missions, respectively.

SpaceX technicians at Cape Canaveral are refurbishing the Falcon 9 booster and Crew Dragon spacecraft in preparation for the April 22 launch.

“I can happily say the vast majority of the vehicle is flight-proven,” said Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, referring to the Crew Dragon spacecraft. “In this case, we are changing some valves, for example, we are changing some of the thermal protection system. On crew vehicles … we always fly new parachutes. So some of those are new, but otherwise it’s really the same vehicle that’s very carefully inspected, carefully prepared, refurbished as needed, and ready to fly.”

Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, said in a press conference Monday that the Crew Dragon for the Crew-2 mission will feature “enhanced capabilities” designed to make the spacecraft safer and ready to handle rougher seas and stronger winds.

“One of the upgrades on this vehicle is improved pad abort performance,” Stich said. “The Dragon is designed to have continuous abort capability from the launch all the way until it gets into orbit. SpaceX went off and looked at a way to optimize their propellant system and provide a little more propellant for an abort off the pad.”

“That did a couple of things,” Stich said. “One, it improved crew safety should we get into that kind of unfortunate situation for a pad abort where the crew would need to leave the pad for an emergency. And secondly, it really improved launch availability. We can handle a little bit stronger onshore winds and improve launch availability.”

The Crew Dragon could perform a pad abort in the event of a major problem with the Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad. The capsule would fire its SuperDraco abort engines to propel itself off the rocket and over the Atlantic Ocean near the seaside launch complex in Florida, where the spaceship would deploy parachutes and splash down just offshore.

A pad abort or in-flight abort would help ensure the astronauts can escape a catastrophic rocket failure.

One technical issue that delayed the first astronaut flight on a Crew Dragon spacecraft involved an explosion of a test capsule in 2019 just before a firing of the SuperDraco engines on the ground. Investigators found the explosion was caused by an unexpected interaction of nitrogen tetroxide, one of the propellants used in the SuperDraco engines, with a titanium valve in the high-pressure propulsion system. Stich said SpaceX has modified the propulsion system for the upcoming mission to make it safer.

“We learned a lot about titanium and nitrogen tetroxide, the oxidizer, and that compatibility,” Stich said. “We’ve enhanced the SuperDraco thrusters and removed some titanium from that system and gone to a stainless steel kind of material in those, and improved safety there.”

“I really look at this flight as kind of an abort enhancement flight,” Stich said. “If you step back and look at this flight, we are improving the risk posture to the vehicle by improving aborts, improving the pad abort capability, eliminating titanium in the propulsion system, improving downrange aborts by changing the software. So overall … we’re continuing to endeavor to buy down risk in the program over time.”

NASA engineers embedded with SpaceX’s Dragon refurbishment team at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station have been tracking preparations on the spaceship since its splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 2. The Crew Dragon Endeavour capsule spent 64 days in orbit, most of that time docked with the space station.

Stich said a review of the refurbishment on the spacecraft last Friday showed SpaceX and NASA are in “really good shape” with their plans to reuse the capsule on the Crew-2 mission.

“When we go through this certification process, we really look at every part of the vehicle,” Stich said. “There are new parachutes, a new heat shield, new nose cone, new components, and then we look at what we’re doing during the refurbishment process … Overall, I don’t really see any high risk in reuse because we’ve gone through a methodical process, and we’ve checked as the components get reinstalled.”

The Crew Dragon “Endeavour” capsule is lifted from the Gulf of Mexico after splashdown Aug. 2, 2020, to conclude the Demo-2 test mission. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Kimbrough said Monday the Crew-2 astronauts will keep the “Endeavour” name for the spacecraft revealed by Hurley and Behnken shortly after their launch last May.

Other modifications to the Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft include strengthening the capsule’s outer structure to handle splashdown in rougher sea conditions. The changes are primarily aimed at reducing impacts to the structure by a “secondary splash,” where water can hit the spacecraft moments after it parachutes into the ocean.

“If there are just the right combination of wave height, winds, and velocity of the vehicle as it comes in, that secondary splash can hit pretty hard,” Reed said. “So we’ve done a lot to analyze for that and test for that, and what ultimately that does is you make the vehicle as strong as you can to withstand that, but you also look at the weather. So you create a lot of limits around the weather, around wind speed and wave height, and all of these different things that are happening.”

But the weather constraints can limit launch and landing opportunities on crewed missions.

“One of things that we’ve done is we’ve actually beefed up parts of the structure, so that we can expand that window of opportunity to bring the crew home, while maintaining all of that safety and all that margin for the crew,” Reed said. “I think it’s a really important update that we’ve done on this particular Dragon. And going forward, that’ll always be part of the design.”

Reed said SpaceX took their time on refurbishing the Crew Dragon between last year’s test flight and the Crew-2. mission. “As we went through that process, we’re learning about what needs to be fully replaced, where we should be inspecting more deeply, what kinds of things we need to do going forward.”

SpaceX eventually wants to shorten the refurbishment timeline to a “couple of months,” according to Reed. Locating refurbishment work near the launch site at Cape Canaveral, rather than at SpaceX’s factory in California or test facility in Central Texas, helps streamline the process.

“The golden key to getting into this new space age is all about being to refly and reuse vehicles,” Reed said.

Crew training for the next Dragon launch will wrap up soon. Kimbrough and his crewmates will travel to the launch base in Florida later this month and crawl into their spacecraft for final inspections, then they will return to Florida in mid-April for final rehearsals ahead of the April 22 liftoff.

The Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft currently docked at the space station will relocate to a different port at the orbiting complex in late March or early April, freeing up the station’s forward docking location for the arrival for the Crew-2 astronauts. The Crew-1 astronauts, which launched aboard the Resilience spaceship in November, will strap in aboard the craft for the automated relocation maneuver.

After the Crew-2 mission arrives next month, the space station will temporarily have 11 astronauts on-board. After a week-long handover, Crew-1 commander Mike Hopkins, pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialists Soichi Noguchi and Shannon Walker will depart the space station in late April or early May and head for splashdown off the coast of Florida, concluding a five-and-a-half month flight in orbit.

NASA and SpaceX want the Crew-1 mission to return to Earth before May 9, when the movement of the space station’s orbit would only afford nighttime landing opportunities for the Crew Dragon.

The Crew-2 launch will reuse the same Falcon 9 booster recovered after the Crew-1 launch in November.

April is a busy month for crew rotations at the space station. A Russian Soyuz spacecraft is scheduled for launch from Kazakhstan on April 9 with two Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut to replace a Soyuz crew that has been at the station since October. The outgoing Soyuz will undock and land back in Kazakhstan on April 17.

“We are excited and ready to get going,” Reed said. “Obviously, we are continuing to check all the boxes, triple checking under all rocks and everywhere to make sure that we’re ready to fly this crew. And as we always say, we won’t fly until we’re ready.”

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