SpaceX is preparing to launch four NASA astronauts on its Crew Dragon spaceship this Halloween — the first of six regular crewed missions the space agency has contracted from the rocket company founded by Elon Musk. (The one that concluded in August was considered a demonstration.)
That’s on top of the cargo resupply missions that SpaceX will regularly launch to the International Space Station for NASA. The company has been sending a spaceship designed to carry supplies, called Cargo Dragon, to the orbiting laboratory since 2012. That vehicle has made more than 20 trips to the station and back.
Combined, the two types of Dragon spacecraft are scheduled to launch into space seven times over the next 14 months, leading to an unprecedented situation for SpaceX.
“Every time there’s a Dragon launch, there’ll be two Dragons in space,” Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX, said at a press conference earlier this month.
That’s because each of the crewed SpaceX missions should overlap for a little while. The company’s next astronaut mission, called Crew 1, launches at the end of the month, then the next one, Crew-2, is scheduled to launch in late March 2021. But the Crew-1 astronauts don’t plan to leave the space station until April. The same thing should happen with the following mission, Crew-3: It’s expected to launch in September 2021, so should tag up with Crew-2 in orbit.
The Crew-1 crew includes NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Mike Hopkins, and Victor Glover, as well as Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi. Hopkins is to be the mission commander, Glover the pilot, and Walker and Noguchi mission specialists.
NASA’s ‘next era in human spaceflight’
Before SpaceX launched NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the space station in May on its Crew Dragon, NASA hadn’t been able to fly its own astronauts to space since 2011, when it ended its space-shuttle program.
The partnership with SpaceX was the product of the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program, which put private firms in competition for billions of dollars’ worth of government contracts. SpaceX and Boeing came out on top. Once the program is complete, NASA will have doled out more than $8 billion in awards and contracts over about a decade.
Boeing is expected to launch its first crewed CST-100 Starliner spaceship in December 2021. The Starliner-1 crew consists of commander Sunita Williams, mission specialist Jeanette Epps, and pilot Josh A. Cassada – all NASA astronauts. The fourth member has not yet been announced.
But before Boeing launches humans into space, it has to retry an uncrewed demonstration mission on Starliner, because the attempt in December failed: Starliner entered orbit successfully, but failed to rendezvous with the space station due to potentially “catastrophic” software errors that NASA then investigated. The vehicle also saw problems on its way back to Earth.
Until Starliner is ready for spaceflight, Crew Dragon remains the only ship the US has to carry people to and from the space station — hence the crew changeovers will, for the foreseeable future, all be on SpaceX missions.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has said he envisions “the next era in human spaceflight” to be one in which NASA can be one of many customers in a “robust commercial marketplace.”
In addition to Commercial Crew, NASA is forming other partnerships with private industry to bring in revenue. In September, the agency announced a $128,000 deal with Estée Lauder to carry 10 bottles of the cosmetics company’s Advanced Night Repair serum to the space station, where crew members will shoot videos and images.
In October 2021, Tom Cruise and “Mission Impossible: Edge of Tomorrow” director Doug Liman are slated to travel to the ISS on a SpaceX tourist mission, where they’ll shoot the first major blockbuster in space. NASA is also in talks with US production company Space Hero, Inc. to produce the first reality TV series filmed in space.