The 100th team of humans bound for the International Space Station (ISS) are safely in low-Earth orbit tonight, chasing down the sprawling orbital outpost as they aim for a docking around 11 p.m. EST Monday. Crew-1 Commander Mike Hopkins and Pilot Victor Glover, accompanied by Mission Specialists Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi, threaded the needle in weather conditions which threatened only a 50-50 chance of acceptability and launched from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida at 7:27 p.m. EST Sunday. Coming two hours after local sunset, it marked the first U.S. human launch in the hours of darkness since STS-131 in April 2010.
Their Falcon 9 booster—powered uphill by only the fourth “new” first stage core to take flight in 2020—performed with perfection and the Dragon Resilience spacecraft now has its sights set on a docking at International Docking Adapter (IDA)-2, on the forward end of the station’s Harmony node, late tomorrow night.
To put it mildly, Crew-1 has been a long time coming. Originally designated “Post-Certification Mission-1” (PCM-1) in NASA parlance, it represents the first “operational” crew-rotation by a Crew Dragon spacecraft and follows on the heels of SpaceX’s highly successful uncrewed Demo-1 mission in March 2019 and crewed Demo-2 mission earlier this summer, which saw Dragon Endeavour crewmen Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken triumphantly return U.S. astronauts to space, aboard a U.S. spacecraft, launched atop a U.S. rocket, and from U.S. soil, for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle Program.
Contracts to build the Crew Dragon spacecraft originally earmarked for the PCM-1/Crew-1 mission were awarded by NASA to SpaceX way back in November 2015, with initial hopes that operational crew-rotation flights to the ISS would be achievable by late 2017. However, delays and underfunding of the Commercial Crew Program made that date untenable and it was not until March 2019 that SpaceX was in position to begin its contractual requirement to fly uncrewed and crewed demonstration missions to the ISS.
But the loss of the Demo-1 capsule during a test-stand explosion in April 2019 pushed the schedule back yet further. As a consequence, the Crew Dragon originally assigned to Demo-2—the next available vehicle off the SpaceX production line—was pressed into service for an In-Flight Abort Test in January 2020 and the vehicle originally assigned to Crew-1 became “Dragon Endeavour” and wound up flying Hurley and Behnken to the space station in May 2020.
The result is that the vehicle flown tonight by Hopkins, Glover, Walker and Noguchi is actually the Crew Dragon initially planned for Crew-2, whose own fabrication contract was awarded in July 2016.
Having completed its construction and testing at SpaceX’s facility in Hawthorne, Calif., the spacecraft arrived in Florida in August and entered final processing. Its Falcon 9 booster had arrived on the Space Coast a few weeks earlier and in early November the two vehicles came together at Pad 39A, the hallowed location of some of America’s most spectacular human spaceflight successes, from the first humans sent to lunar distance to the first manned Moon landing and from the ill-fated launch of Skylab to the first flight of the Space Shuttle.
Last week, the two-day Flight Readiness Review (FRR) was concluded, the nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines of the Falcon 9 were static-fired and a Launch Readiness Review (LRR) confirmed that all systems were ready to launch on 14 November.
But alas, the weather refused to play ball, with onshore winds conspiring against a Saturday launch attempt. The picture was further complicated by undesirable conditions at sea, where the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, was standing by to recover the B1061 core as it returned from the edge of space. That same core is expected to power Dragon Endeavour aloft for its second mission in early 2021, carrying astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Thomas Pesquet and Akihiko Hoshide. Even the weather outlook for Sunday did not offer great promise, with only a 50-50 probability of acceptable conditions at T-0.
“North-northeasterly flow will continue to bring onshore-moving showers off and on through much of the day into the evening,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base in its L-1 briefing on Saturday. “This will bring better rain chances into Sunday as this boundary stalls out across the region, ahead of another frontal system moving into the southeastern U.S. This will bring scattered showers through the day, continuing into the primary launch window Sunday evening.”
Key issues standing in Crew-1’s way for an on-time launch Sunday included the potential violation of the Cumulus Cloud Rule, the Flight Through Precipitation Rule and the Surface Electric Fields Rule.
Nevertheless, NASA and SpaceX pressed on and for the first time since STS-135 in July 2011, a crew of four astronauts emerged from the Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout Building on Sunday afternoon, clad in their black-and-white launch and entry suits. With Hopkins, Walker and Noguchi all having logged long-duration flights to the ISS, Glover is the sole “rookie” on the crew.
And with more than a touch of irony, Japan’s Noguchi—the only non-American member of the crew—is alone among them in having actually launched previously from Florida. He served aboard Discovery on STS-114 in July 2005, which returned the shuttle fleet to operational service after the Columbia tragedy. By contrast, Hopkins and Walker both launched their previous flights from Baikonur.
Liftoff of the Falcon 9 occurred on time at 7:27 p.m. EST, about two hours after local sunset, marking the first U.S. human launch in the hours of darkness since STS-131 in April 2010. After boosting the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) booster uphill for 2.5 minutes, the nine Merlin 1D+ engines were shut down on time and the B1061 core separated, returning to Earth via a sequence of engine-burns and hypersonic grid-fins to alight on the ASDS deck. Meanwhile, the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the second stage picked up the baton to deliver Dragon Resilience smoothly into low-Earth orbit.
Hopkins, Glover, Walker and Noguchi are now well into their 28-hour and 18.5-orbit rendezvous profile to reach the ISS at about 11 p.m. EST Monday. Also aboard Crew Dragon is a total of 530 pounds (241 kg) of equipment, payloads and supplies bound for the ISS. This includes 63.3 pounds (28.7 kg) of utilization hardware, 158 pounds (71.8 kg) of crew supplies, 79 pounds (35.8 kg) of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) equipment and 168 pounds (76.3 kg) of NASA-Provided Supplies.
Assuming an on-time docking tomorrow, Dragon Resilience will mark the 100th successful delivery of humans to the space station. Thirty-seven shuttle flights between December 1998 and July 2011, together with 61 Soyuz missions between October 2000 and last month, and of course “Bob and Doug’s Excellent Adventure” earlier this year, have allowed Hopkins & Co. to snare this impressive accolade.
When the hatches into the station are opened in the small hours of Monday morning, the Crew-1 team will be welcomed aboard by incumbent Expedition 64 Commander Sergei Ryzhikov and his crewmates Sergei Kud-Sverchkov and Kate Rubins, who are entering their fifth week in orbit. This will also mark the first time that as many as seven crew members will have aboard the ISS for a prolonged period.
And that achievement is expected to carry corresponding benefits in terms of enhanced science capability. At Friday’s post-LRR press conference, ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano hinted that Crew-1 may remain at the station until April 2021, enabling a “direct handover” with Crew-2, whose current Launch Readiness date is late March.