SpaceX’s Next Astronaut Launch Date Confirmed By NASA

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) provided an update for its first operational manned launch to the International Space Station (ISS) today. NASA's Crew-1 mission, part of its Commercial Crew Program (CCP) which aims to utilize the private sector's expertise for the space launch industry, will now take to the skies on November 14, 2020, if the agency's current plans hold. The astronauts will be flying on top of a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Falcon 9 launch vehicle and inside the company's Crew Dragon capsule spacecraft.

SpaceX Crew Dragon Ready To Resume Manned Flights To ISS From U.S. After Engine Problems With Falcon 9

SpaceX, which is one of four participants (for spacecraft manufacturing) in the CCP became the first company in history to launch astronauts to the ISS earlier this year in May. This launch saw NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley fly to the station on the company's Crew Dragon capsule as part of the space agency's Demo-2 mission, which intended to evaluate the spacecraft for NASA's certification process prior to the agency giving it the go-ahead for conducting crewed flights.

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The two astronauts took to the skies in May 2020 and re-entered the Earth's atmosphere two months later in August. Following their arrival, NASA and SpaceX began reviewing the data generated by the vehicle during its test flight and made adjustments to Crew Dragon's design before the space agency gave it the go-ahead to conduct its first operational flight later this month on Halloween.

The upgrades involved changes to the vehicle's parachute deployment system and more importantly to its heat shield – which, according to NASA and SpaceX had experienced unexpected erosion during Crew Dragon's re-entry in the Earth's atmosphere; an occurrence that SpaceX's vice president of Build and Flight Reliability Mr. Hans Koenigsmann maintained was a "safe event" while discussing the heat shield damage.

NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, Michael Hopkins (left to right) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi (far right) inside SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule. For the Crew-1 mission, Hopkins will be in command and Glover will pilot the Crew Dragon. Image: SpaceX

Before Crew-1 could take off at the end of this month, NASA revealed through a blog post that the agency had decided to push back the mission's launch date to mid-November. The reason behind this decision was stated to be a problem with the Falcon 9's Merlin 1D rocket engine. Specifically, the component of this engine responsible for ignition, i.e. its gas generator had displayed "off-nominal" behavior on a non-NASA mission. SpaceX had encountered a similar problem on its mission for the United States Space Force, and the problem had caused the company to cancel the launch of the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite.

Providing an update for the Crew-1 mission last week, NASA's associate administrator for its Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate Ms. Kathy Leuders revealed that SpaceX will replace one Merlin 1D engine on the Falcon 9 assigned to the Crew-1 mission. The rocket has nine engines in total, a fact that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has lauded as one of the company's uniquely creative approaches to rocket design that his agency might not have been able to develop on its own. To ensure that the astronauts on-board the Falcon 9 will be safe throughout their ascent, NASA plans to monitor the launch of its Earth observation satellite Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich set to take place four days before the Crew-1 launch.

The Crew-1 mission will take off late evening, and NASA intends to make the mission last at least six months – a duration that will test the Dragon spacecraft's solar panels to their maximum limit. These panels are one of the limiting factors for the time that the vehicle can spend docked to the ISS due to the degradation they face when exposed to the harsh environment of Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

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