For the first time, NASA is a spectator for a U.S. crew mission to low Earth orbit

Jared Isaacman, commander of the Inspiration4 mission, trains in a Crew Dragon simulator at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s launch of the all-private Inspiration4 crew mission, scheduled as soon as Wednesday night, is an all-commercial affair that leaves NASA largely on the sidelines. And that’s just fine with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

“It’s another opening up of space,” Nelson said Tuesday during the Humans To Mars Summit. “In this particular one, other than the fact that the spacecraft, in this case the Dragon spacecraft, was built under the auspices of NASA because of the safety of astronauts. But other than that … This is SpaceX’s deal.

“NASA is not involved in it because this is a totally commercial operation of which they are not touching or, in this case, docking with the International Space Station,” Nelson said.

Private spaceflight will become the norm, if NASA gets its way. The space agency has turned over astronaut transportation to low Earth orbit to the private sector, through contracts with SpaceX and Boeing, and eventually wants a commercial space station to replace the International Space Station.

“It’s another example of where we’d like to go in low Earth orbit eventually,” Nelson said. “We want to keep the International Space Station going until 2030, and then we want to phase that out. We want commercial operations to take over low Earth orbit. We want them to do the manufacturing. We want them to have their own space station, so that NASA can continue to push outward into the solar system, and beyond.”

Under that scenario, NASA, international space agencies, companies, and private citizens would be able to purchase rides to a commercial space station. That frees governments from the cost burden of building and operating an orbiting complex, allowing NASA to spend its resources on deep space exploration, such as missions to the moon and Mars.

A NASA spokesperson said SpaceX is paying NASA around $1 million for limited support of the Inspiration4 mission.

The space agency’s support includes communications links with the Crew Dragon capsule through ground stations and NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System, a network of satellites in geostationary orbit also used to communicate with the space station.

The TDRS satellites will relay voice and data between Crew Dragon and SpaceX mission control in California. Video imagery from the capsule will only come down to Earth when Dragon is in range of a ground tracking station.

NASA also sold pyrotechnic initiators and detonators to SpaceX, presumably for use in separation mechanisms or destruct systems, which would be activated during a launch emergency — after the crew capsule escapes — to ensure debris doesn’t threaten the public.

SpaceX and NASA also reached an agreement to allow the Inspiration4 crew to observe simulations with NASA astronauts. NASA will also deploy a WB-57 surveillance aircraft to collect imagery of the Crew Dragon’s re-entry, parachute deployment, and splashdown at the end of the Inspiration4 mission, in exchange for NASA access to inspect the chutes before and after the flight.

The Crew Dragon’s parachutes were one of the final elements of the spacecraft to be fully qualified for human missions, after test failures prompted a late redesign of the chutes ahead of the first piloted Dragon spaceflight.

Teams at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center will also provide the Inspiration4 mission with pad and fire rescue, security support, propellants, pressurants, and lab support services, airborne drone imagery and helicopter surveillance support, and life support equipment, according to the agency spokesperson.

The mission will launch from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, the same complex used by Apollo moon missions. SpaceX leased the pad from NASA in 2014.

SpaceX has launched four Crew Dragon missions to date, all under contract to NASA. Three of the missions have carried astronauts to the space station.

The Inspiration4 mission is licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. regulatory agency that oversees spaceflight. The FAA is charged with ensuring space launches and re-entries don’t endanger the public, while the safety of occupants is guided by the principle of informed consent.

NASA awarded $6.8 billion in contracts to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to complete development of new commercial crew capsules. SpaceX got $2.6 billion in government funding to design and build the human-rated Crew Dragon spacecraft, and Boeing received a similar $4.2 billion deal for its Starliner spacecraft.

Both programs ran into delays, but SpaceX launched its first astronaut mission for NASA in May 2020, ending a nearly nine-year gap in U.S. orbital crew launches since the retirement of the space shuttle.

Boeing’s Starliner program, on the other hand, still has not flown into space with a crew.

Jared Isaacman, the billionaire funding and flying on the Inspiration4 mission, said Tuesday that SpaceX’s track record and process “inspires a lot of confidence for us.”

“Any jitters are the good kind,” said Hayley Arceneaux, Inspiration4’s crew medical officer and a physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the beneficiary of a fundraising effort attached to the mission. “I’m just so excited for tomorrow to get here.”

Isaacman, Arceneaux, science educator Sian Proctor, and aerospace engineer Chris Sembroski will put on their SpaceX pressure suits and arrive at launch pad 39A around 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) Wednesday.

The private astronauts will board SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience spaceship on top of a 215-foot-tall (65-meter) Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX’s support team will evacuate the launch pad before super-chilled kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants begin pumping into the rocket 35 minutes before liftoff.

At that time, the Crew Dragon’s powerful SuperDraco thrusters will be armed, ready to propel the capsule and its four-person crew away from the Falcon 9 rocket if computers detect any major problems. The escape capability will remain active throughout the Falcon 9’s ascent into orbit.

In most instances, a flight computer would automatically trigger a launch abort if it detected something was going wrong. The crew on-board the Dragon capsule can also manually command an escape maneuver.

Nine Merlin main engines, generating a combined 1.7 million pounds of thrust, will push the Falcon 9 launcher off pad 39A. Liftoff is timed for 8:02 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0002 GMT Thursday), the opening of a launch window that extends more than five hours.

The Inspiration4 mission has an unusually long launch window because the Dragon capsule will not fly to the International Space Station. Instead, the capsule will spend three days in Earth orbit at an altitude of around 357 miles (575 kilometers), higher than any astronauts have flown in more than a decade, since the space shuttle servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Benji Reed, director of SpaceX’s human spaceflight programs, is joined by the Inspiration4 crew members in a press conference Tuesday at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Inspiration4 / John Kraus

SpaceX will plans to fly the same trajectory it uses for space station missions, allowing the launch to use the same ground tracking stations and similar rescue plans if the capsule has an unplanned return to Earth.

Unlike a NASA flight, the U.S. military pararescue team charged with retrieving astronauts after an unplanned landing will not be activated for Inspiration4. SpaceX and Inspiration4 officials say unspecified private and government rescue teams, presumably including the U.S. Coast Guard, would be dispatched to assist the crew if they splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean after a launch abort.

The flight path will take the Falcon 9 rocket northeast from Florida on a heading parallel to the U.S. East Coast and the Canadian maritime provinces. The rocket’s reusable first stage, a veteran of two prior launches and landings, will target a touchdown on a SpaceX drone ship parked in the Atlantic Ocean east of South Carolina.

The Falcon 9’s single-engine second stage will finish the job of placing the Crew Dragon capsule into orbit. The spacecraft is expected to separate from the rocket about 12 minutes after liftoff, followed a minute later by the opening of the ship’s nose cone, revealing Dragon’s forward maneuvering thrusters and a new domed plexiglass window.

The three-layer cupola window will offer the Inspiration4 crew panoramic views of Earth and space. It replaces the docking port used on space station missions, and the Inspiration4 crew will access the cupola by opening Dragon’s forward hatch.

Isaacman and his crewmates will spend three days in orbit. If they launch on time Wednesday, the crew is scheduled to return to Earth for a parachute-assisted splashdown around 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT) Saturday, according to Scott “Kidd” Poteet, Inspiration4’s mission manager.

The Crew Dragon will splash down at one of seven return zones off the coast of Florida, either in the Gulf of Mexico or off the Atlantic coast. SpaceX will establish a primary return area around 24 hours before splashdown, based on forecasts of weather and sea conditions.

Benji Reed, director of SpaceX’s human spaceflight programs, said the Inspiration4 crew completed “many months” and “hundreds of hours” of training at SpaceX locations across the country.

If all goes as planned, the spacecraft will fly its mission on autopilot, with on-board computers and ground controllers overseeing operations.

“They’ve been doing all kinds of training,” Reed said Tuesday. “They’ve studied over 90 different kinds of training guides and manuals and lessons to learn how to fly the fly the Dragon, and what to do in emergency situations. They’ve done their own kinds of preparations, a zero-G flight, they’ve climbed Mount Rainier together. And they’ve done a lot of jet fighter flights.”

SpaceX’s training included 12-hour and 30-hour simulations in a mock-up of a Crew Dragon spacecraft at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. The simulations, or sims, tested the crew’s response to emergencies and to living in isolation on the Dragon capsule.

“We’re happy to say that this crew and our operations team (are) ready and certified, and ready to fly,” Reed said.

Reed said SpaceX’s corporate mission to extend human life to other planets requires “putting millions of people in space one day.”

“So the long term vision is its spaceflight becomes airline-like, right?” he said. “You can buy a ticket, and you go. But right now, the appropriate thing is that we still train people significantly.”

SpaceX has other private crew missions on the books, beginning with the launch of another four-person team on a Dragon spacecraft in early 2022. On that mission, sponsored by the Houston-based company Axiom Space, the Dragon spacecraft will dock with the space station, and the private astronauts will spend about a week living and working there under an arrangement with NASA.

There are also more dedicated NASA flights with SpaceX’s fleet Crew Dragon capsules. SpaceX’s next NASA crew flight is set for launch Oct. 31 from Kennedy Space Center to kick off a six-month expedition to the space station.

“As we look for ways to evolve toward that airline-like model, we’ll look for how we can cut back on the amount of training that’s necessary to ensure safety,” Reed said.

“The reality is that the Dragon manifest is getting busier by the moment,” Reed said. “We’re gearing up to fly three, four, five, six times a year, at least.”

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