Crew-8 will Launch to the Space Station on March 1

Crew-8 will Launch to the Space Station on March 1

As part of a hectic schedule of missions to the International Space Station this year, NASA and SpaceX are moving forward with a commercial crew mission later this week.

NASA declared late on February 25 that it has approved the launch schedule, which calls for the Crew-8 mission to the International Space Station to depart from the Kennedy Space Center at 12:04 a.m. Eastern time on March 1. NASA had completed a flight readiness evaluation for the mission. In doing so, the Crew Dragon spacecraft would be able to connect with the station on March 2 at around 7 a.m. Eastern.

The most recent crew rotation mission to the station is Crew-8. It will transport Alexander Grebenkin of Roscosmos, along with NASA astronauts Matthew Dominick, Michael Barratt, and Jeanette Epps, to the space station for a six-month assignment. Except for Barrett, who is making his third voyage and second extended stay on the ISS, all of the passengers will be making their maiden flight.

Following the battle readiness assessment, NASA and SpaceX representatives told the public at a conference that they were addressing a few minor technical problems with the Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket. According to NASA commercial crew program manager Steve Stich, this includes making sure the vehicle’s composite panels are securely connected and examining paint deterioration on the Crew-7 Crew Dragon that is presently at the station, which could alter the vehicle’s thermal characteristics upon reentry.

Those open items, he said, did not appear to be major issues. “I suspect we’ll close these out Tuesday or Wednesday.”

An earlier problem that seems to have been fixed involves “energy modulator” straps in the main parachutes, which are meant to control the load on the parachutes during their extraction from the capsule. On a cargo Dragon flight, CRS-29, which returned in December, some of those straps failed to separate as intended.

On the most recent Crew Dragon flight, the Ax-3 private astronaut mission that splashed down on February 9, those straps performed as planned. “No energy modulator issues that we’ve seen on prior flights were observed,” stated Bill Gerstenmaier, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX.

This Crew Dragon spacecraft, known as Endeavour, will be on its fifth trip. It was used to carry out the first crewed SpaceX mission, Demo-2, in 2020. Currently certified for five missions, NASA is collaborating with SpaceX to expand Crew Dragon’s certification to a maximum of fifteen flights.

“We’re in the middle of doing that work,” Stich said, evaluating various vehicle components. “Some are actually approved for 15 flights, some we’re still in the middle of working on.”

According to him, the study might lead to the crew dragon’s and its cargo variant’s lifespan being extended to a middle value of five to fifteen flights, at least initially. “We’ll see where we get to, but I would like to get out to seven or ten flights per Dragon.”

Additionally, SpaceX is finishing up a fifth Crew Dragon spaceship. According to Gerstenmaier, the vehicle will be prepared for use this autumn and is tentatively scheduled to carry out the Crew-10 mission in 2025. “That vehicle will be available sometime in the fourth quarter of this year, whichever NASA decides to use it.”

Getting Ready for Starliner

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle is also waiting in the wings. It is scheduled to make its much-anticipated inaugural crewed flight this spring. The current launch date for the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission, which includes NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, is April 22, according to Stich.

He stated, “We’ve resolved a lot of the issues that caused the launch from last summer to be delayed.” This included a final parachute test in early January to verify design modifications meant to strengthen it. He declared that test to be successful and that no more parachute tests were scheduled before to the CFT launch.

Additionally, flammable tape in the Starliner spacecraft has been changed, and in-flight abnormalities from the OFT-2 unmanned test flight in May 2022 have been fixed. “At this point, everything is going well for the launch of Starliner towards the end of April.”

That launch will fit into an already packed itinerary of ISS missions. He stated that the undocking of the Crew-7 Crew Dragon mission is not expected to occur until March 8. As a result, a docking port will become available for the mid-March launch of the cargo Dragon mission, CRS-30. After undocking, the Crew-8 Crew Dragon will transfer from the forward to the zenith docking ports, allowing Starliner to dock at the forward port. It will stay on the station for around a month.

“Some future launch date adjustments for even Starliner might happen just because of this busy timeframe,” Stich said.

Taking off from Pad 40

Currently slated to launch from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 40, the CRS-30 mission will be the first to utilize the crew and cargo access tower that SpaceX constructed at the pad. As a result, Dragon missions that can currently only launch from Launch Complex 39A will be able to host from SLC-40.

“We’ve got a good plan laid out to get everything certified and ready to go fly for that time,” Gerstenmaier said. “We’ll be in good shape for CRS-30.”

Should there be issues with LC-39A, having the capacity to launch Dragon missions from SLC-40 will offer some redundancy. Since LC-39A is built to enable Falcon Heavy launches as well, it would also aid in addressing launch pad congestion issues. In order to enable Intuitive Machines’ lunar landers to be fueled with liquid oxygen and methane propellants just prior to launch, SpaceX further modified LC-39A.

Thus, Crew-8 experienced a minor delay in order to make room for the IM-1 mission, which took off on February 15. Finding a launch date for Crew-8 that fell after the February window for IM-1 but before a March window had IM-1 lapsed was like “trying to thread a needle,” according to Stich. “We changed our date a few times to give ourselves the most options.”

That resulted in about a one-week delay for Crew-8, which is also launching from LC-39A. “Who would have thought, five or six years ago, that the competition for launch, or the constraint to launch, would be a launch pad?” Dominick, the commander of Crew-8, said in remarks after arriving at the Kennedy Space Center Feb. 25. “We delayed our launch a few days because there’s stiff competition to get out there to 39A. It’s not a rocket constraint, it’s a pad constraint.”

Sanchita Patil

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