SpaceX debuts new Dragon capsule in launch to the International Space Station

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft lifts off Wednesday night from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

SpaceX launched four astronauts toward the International Space Station on a brand new Dragon spacecraft Wednesday night from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, continuing the company’s swift acceleration of crew missions just two days after another capsule returned to Earth.

The successful blastoff from Florida marked SpaceX’s fifth launch to send humans into space since ending a gap in U.S. orbital human spaceflight capability in May 2020 with the first Dragon astronaut mission.

Since then, SpaceX has launched three operational crew rotation flights to the space station under contract to NASA, including the launch Wednesday night. The most recent Crew Dragon launch to carry people was the privately-funded, all-civilian Inspiration4 mission, a three-day voyage in September to raise awareness and money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

SpaceX was back at work for NASA with the launch Wednesday, kicking off a 22-hour pursuit of the space station on the company’s newest spacecraft — the Crew Dragon Endurance.

NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn, Kayla Barron, and European Space Agency mission specialist Matthias Maurer rocketed off pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on top of a 215-foot-tall (65-meter) Falcon 9 launcher at 9:03:31 p.m. EST Wednesday (0203:31 GMT Thursday).

The mission, designated Crew-3, was running more than 10 days late after bad weather and an unspecified minor medical issue with one of the astronauts forced delays.

After a smooth countdown, the Falcon 9 booster lit its nine Merlin 1D main engines and lifted off with 1.7 million pounds of thrust. The rocket climbed through clouds over Florida’s Space Coast, arcing to the northeast over the Atlantic Ocean to line up with the orbital plane of the space station.

Chari, making his first trip into space, calmly relayed progress updates on the flight, calling out abort zones as the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft gained speed and altitude over the Atlantic.

Two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s first stage shut down its nine kerosene-fueled engines and separated to begin a controlled descent back toward a SpaceX drone ship several hundred miles northeast of Cape Canaveral.

The second stage’s single Merlin engine ignited for a six-minute burn to propel the Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft to an orbital velocity near 17,000 mph (27,000 kilometers per hour). The reusable first stage, meanwhile, successfully touched down on the drone ship, completing its second trip to space and back.

SpaceX confirmed the capsule reached orbit, and a live view inside the ship’s pressurized cabin showed the astronauts enjoying microgravity. A crew mascot in the form of a plush turtle was visible floating inside the spacecraft, representing NASA’s 2017 astronaut class, nicknamed the “Turtles.”

Chari and Barron are the first members of the 2017 astronaut class to fly into space. Marshburn is the sole spaceflight veteran on the Crew-3 mission, with previous launches on a space shuttle and Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to his credit. He has logged 161 days in orbit on his two prior missions.

ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, a native of Germany, is also on his first spaceflight.

“Tonight, we had a perfect launch at 9:03 p.m., and Raja, Tom, Kayla, and Matthias are safely on orbit,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager … The crew is doing great. They were in great spirits prior to launch, and then great spirits on orbit.”

Soon after reaching space, the Crew Dragon Endurance capsule opened a nose cone to reveal its docking mechanism. The astronauts took off their custom-made SpaceX flight suits, talked to flight surgeons in mission control, and enjoyed a meal before settling in for the cruise to the space station.

A sequence of relatively small velocity adjustments using the spacecraft’s Draco thrusters will fine-tune the approach to the station, culminating in a docking with the forward port on the Harmony module at 7:10 p.m. EST Thursday (0010 GMT Friday).

After equalizing pressure between the Crew Dragon and space station, the astronauts will open hatches and float into the orbiting research complex around 8:45 p.m. EST (0145 GMT). Chari and his crewmates will join NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, Russian commander Anton Shkaplerov, and flight engineer Pyotr Dubrov aboard the station.

The Crew-3 astronauts will replace four astronauts who departed the space station Monday and splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour spaceship. That mission, known as Crew-2, launched in April with commander Shane Kimbrough, pilot Megan McArthur, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, and ESA mission specialist Thomas Pesquet.

Officials originally planned to launch the Crew-3 mission before Crew-2 returned to Earth, allowing a few days for the outgoing team of astronauts to brief the incoming crew at the space station.

But with the Crew-3 launch delays, NASA mangers decided to swap the order of the crew rotation and bring the Crew-2 astronauts home first.

Chari, a 44-year-old Air Force colonel and veteran test pilot on the F-35 program, is the first rookie astronaut to command a NASA space mission since the Skylab 4 mission that launched in 1973.

NASA’s second space shuttle mission in 1981 was commanded by Joe Engle, who took off on his first flight into Earth orbit. But Engle, a veteran test pilot, previously raised an altitude over 50 miles (80 kilometers) in 1965 on three flights of the X-15 rocket plane, a joint project between NASA and the Air Force.

The 50-mile threshold is the boundary of space as recognized by the U.S. government.

ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, NASA pilot Tom Marshburn, commander Raja Chari, and mission specialist Kayla Barron inside the crew access arm at launch pad 39A during a dry dress rehearsal Oct. 28. Credit: SpaceX

Chari, who grew up in Iowa, said the training program developed by NASA and SpaceX prepared him for the flight. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is also designed to fly in a fully automated mode, requiring little or no input from the crew members.

“It’s not so much the Dragon vehicle, I think it’s more a testament to the training we get,” Chari said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “NASA has done a great job over the years of taking feedback on the training process, and I think the space station has given us now 20 years of experience knowing what training we need, and what training we don’t need.”

Chari said the presence of Marshburn on the crew has been “hugely beneficial.” Marshburn, who launched previously on a space shuttle and a Soyuz mission, has acted as a teacher for the three rookie astronauts, Chari said.

“He’s seen life in a small capsule,” Chari said. “He’s seen life on a larger machine in the shuttle. He’s seen life for a long duration on the ISS, so he’s got that wide breadth of experience to help inform our training as we’ve gone through.”

Chari and Marshburn, a 61-year-old medical doctor from North Carolina, are trained to take over manual control of the Dragon spacecraft using touchscreen displays in the cockpit. But something would have to go wrong for the astronauts to manually fly the capsule.

“The reality is the commander role is not so much a technical role,” Chari said. “It’s more of a coach role … The coach of an NBA team is not actually teaching a player how to shoot the ball. They’re more trying to figure out how to make the team work best in different situations.

“It’s very similar here. A fire response crew coordination effort is different than a depressurization response crew coordination effort. So knowing what resources, people-wise, to put on different problems or different situations is really my job.”

Kayla Barron was one of the first women to serve as a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy. Now she’s ready to apply her experience under the waves to a flight above the atmosphere on the International Space Station.

“There is no better preparation for spaceflight than serving aboard a submarine,” Barron said in a pre-flight interview with Spaceflight Now.

The 34-year-old naval officer was born in Idaho and graduated high school in Richland, Washington. She said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which happened when she was 14, “really cemented by desire to serve.

“It came into focus that the best fit for me was to join the Navy and go to the Naval Academy,” she said.

The Navy announced in 2010 that it would begin permitting women to serve on submarines, one of the final naval assignments still restricted to only men. The policy change happened just as Barron was about to graduate from the Naval Academy.

“During my senior year, they changed the policy and allowed women to enter the submarine force for the first time,” Barron said. “So I was in the right place at the right time to do the right thing for me, and was able to join the submarine force and serve there before applying to be an astronaut, and ending up where I am today.”

She was assigned to the USS Maine, a ballistic missile submarine. Barron qualified as a submarine warfare officer for three patrols aboard the Maine.

Barron said she didn’t have a lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut. Her experience on submarines inspired her to apply to join NASA’s astronaut corps.

The launch Wednesday night was first time she has ever experienced blastoff of a large rocket in person.

“It’s kind of a great failure of mine that I haven’t found myself at the Cape or in Russia for a launch yet,” Barron said before or mission. “My very first rocket launch will be riding that same rocket to space.”

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft sits atop its Falcon 8 launcher at Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 31. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

With Wednesday night’s launch, Maurer became the 600th person to fly into space since the dawn of the Space Age. He’s eager to start on his science mission on the space station, where he will operate facilities inside the European Columbus lab module and support research in other segments of the outpost.

Born in the German state of Saarland, Maurer earned degrees in materials technology and materials science. He received a doctorate in materials science engineering from the Technical University of Aachen, Germany, and has a master’s degree in economics for engineers from the Open University in Hagen, Germany.

While completing his studies, Maurer researched high-temperature metals and served as a paramedic. He worked four years for an international medical company, researching new materials for disposable medical equipment, such as blood filters used in dialysis.

In a pre-flight interview, Maurer said his education and research experience have prepared him for work on the space station.

“Some of these topics are actually the research areas that we have on the International Space Station,” he said. “We have a lot of materials science on the space station. We have several furnaces, but we also work in the domain of life sciences. That’s why I think I bring a lot of expert knowledge to run a lot of these experiments that have on the space station

“In German, my last name Maurer means brick layer,” Maurer said. “As a brick layer, you should do something with construction, so I will have an experiment with concrete. We will mix some cement on the space station and see how it hardens.”

Maurer also trained for a spacewalk early next year in a Russian Orlan spacesuit. He and a cosmonaut crewmate will work outside the station to outfit a European robotic arm delivered to the space station on Russia’s Nauka science module in July.

Chari and his crewmates selected “Endurance” as the name of SpaceX’s newest spaceship, following a tradition set by the astronauts who flew on the first missions of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour and Crew Dragon Resilience capsules.

The new spacecraft is nearly identical to the other capsules SpaceX’s human spaceflight fleet. But the Crew-3 mission marks the first time SpaceX has reused a Crew Dragon nose cone, which flew previously a different spacecraft. There are also software upgrades to guard against radiation impacts on communications systems while the spacecraft is docked at the space station.

SpaceX added more cleaning techniques to cut down on foreign object debris, according NASA, and introduced computer changes to improve their performance during re-entry. Engineers modified the spacecraft’s docking procedures and mechanisms to mitigate hardware interference on the space station side of the interface, NASA said.

SpaceX also developed and implemented a quick change to the Dragon toilet on the new capsule after a urine leak on Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft flown on the private Inspiration4 mission last month. The modification involved replacing a leaky glued joint with a more solid welded joint.

There a few more perks on the Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft, including USB charging ports for the astronauts’ tablets.

Chari, Marshburn, Maurer, and Barron will remain on the space station until late April, following the launch and docking of SpaceX’s Crew-4 mission. The Crew-4 mission will also debut a brand new Crew Dragon capsule, giving SpaceX a fleet of four reusable crew ships to use on NASA and commercial astronaut flights.

SpaceX flies the long-duration crew missions to the space station under a $2.6 billion contract with NASA covering development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft and six operational astronaut flights, each with a crew of four.

With the launch of the Crew-3 mission, SpaceX has sent 18 people into orbit in the last 18 months on five Crew Dragon flights.

“I certainly think we have learned a lot, and we’re very grateful for the chance to fly as often as we have,” said Sarah Walker, director of Dragon mission management. “We you know we need a reason to fly, and we’re grateful that NASA provided us a reason to fly — and several other customers.”

Four of the five crew missions SpaceX has launched to date are part of the company’s commercial crew contract with NASA. The Inspiration4 mission was a private arrangement, and SpaceX’s next crew launch in February will be another commercial affair under contract with Axiom Space, which is sending a professional astronaut and three paying passengers on a 10-day voyage to the space station.

“When we first started commercial crew, it would have been a dream to me that we would have flown these four missions, with the cadence, working back-to-back,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations.

NASA and SpaceX reviewed data from the Crew-2 mission’s re-entry and splashdown Monday night before clearing next crew flight for liftoff. One focus of the data review was the Dragon spacecraft’s parachutes.

One of the four main chutes on the Crew-2 mission took longer to fully inflate than the other three, but NASA officials said the “lagging” inflation is an expected “feature” of the four-chute landing system. The fourth chute eventually unfurled, and the Crew Dragon Endeavour capsule reached the Gulf of Mexico for splashdown at the correct speed.

The loading on the parachutes during the capsule’s final descent can sometimes cause one, but more more, of the chutes to take longer to inflate, according to Stich.

“Right now, I don’t see any changes going forward,” Stich said of the parachutes. “We’ll continue to look at the data. We did a review of the data for the (Crew-2) flight to get to launh today, but we’ll continue on with the data from Crew-2. And as we get smarter, if there’s an improvement we can make down the road, we’ll do that.”

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