NASA and SpaceX set to launch first operational Crew Dragon mission
Following up on the successful launch and return of NASA Astronauts in May, SpaceX is on the cusp of flying the first certified operational mission of their Crew Dragon capsule. The launch of the Crew 1 mission atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A is targeted for 7:27 p.m. EST this evening, Sunday November 15.
Considered to be another historic first for both NASA and SpaceX, hot off the heels of the highly successful Demo-2 flight test mission, the launch serves as the very first flight of a fully certified and qualified Crew Dragon capsule. Having been given the fully operational designation during the flight readiness review prior to launch, the capsules will now be in a full rotation for transporting crew to the International Space Station. For this flight, the first of Dragon Capsule no. 207, the crew have aptly named their capsule “Resilience.”
NASA Astronaut Michael Hopkins Spoke on the name choice earlier this year in September. “If you look up the definition of the word resilience, it means functioning well in times of stress or overcoming adverse events. I think all of us can agree that 2020 has certainly been a challenging year, with a global pandemic, economic hardships, social unrest, and isolation… Despite all of that, SpaceX and NASA have kept the production line open and finished this amazing vehicle that is getting ready to go on its maiden flight to the International Space Station… So the name Resilience is really in honor of the SpaceX and NASA teams, and, quite frankly, it is in honor of our families, our colleagues, our fellow citizens, our international partners and our leaders, who have shown that same quality, those same characteristics all through these difficult times.”
The honor of commanding the first operational mission is bestowed upon NASA Astronaut and U.S. Space Force Colonel Michael Hopkins. Hopkins is a graduate of both the University of Illinois and Stanford University, holding a Masters degree in aerospace engineering. A veteran astronaut, he was selected to become an astronaut while a member of the U.S. Air Force in 2009. Hopkins has flown to space once before on Soyuz TMA-10M, and served as a Flight Engineer for ISS Expedition 37/38, a role he will again assume for Expedition 64/65.
Piloting the mission is 2013 NASA Astronaut selectee and U.S. Navy Commander Victor Glover. Glover is making his first spaceflight as part of the mission, and will serve as Flight Engineer for Expedition 64/65. Glover has a vast education background, receiving a Bachelors in general engineering from California Polytechnic State University, as well as Masters degrees in Flight Test Engineering from the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, Systems Engineering from Naval Postgraduate School, and Military Operational Art & Science from the U.S. Air Force Air University. Glover has flown 24 combat missions, accumulated over 3,000 flight hours in over 40 aircraft, and performed over 400 aircraft carrier arrested landings.
Flying as one of two Mission Specialists for the mission, NASA Astronaut and Physicist Shannon Walker will serve as a Flight Engineer for Expedition 64, before assuming command of the ISS as Commander of Expedition 65. Walker holds a Bachelor of Arts in Physics, as well as Masters and Doctorate degrees of Philosophy in Space Physics from Rice University. Walker first began working as a contractor for Rockwell at Johnson Space Center in 1987, serving as a flight controller for multiple Space Shuttle missions before becoming a NASA employee in 1995. Selected as an astronaut in 2004, Walker has one previous spaceflight onboard Soyuz TMA-19, serving as Flight Engineer for Expedition 24/25.
The most experienced member of the crew is Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Astronaut Soichi Noguchi. Noguchi first flew to space aboard the STS-114 “return to flight” mission as a Mission Specialist. Noguchi also flew as Flight Engineer onboard Soyuz TMA-17, serving in the same role for Expedition 22/23. He has also spent a combined 20 hours in space over the course of 3 spacewalks. Selected as an astronaut by JAXA in 1996, Noguchi holds both a Bachelors and Masters degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Tokyo. He will serve as Flight Engineer for Expedition 64/65. With his flight on Crew Dragon, Noguchi joins an elite club of astronauts who have flown on 3 different types of spacecraft, becoming only the third astronaut, and the first non-American to accomplish the feat.
Following the launch, the new manufacture first stage Falcon 9 booster will guide itself back to Earth for a landing, and recovery, onboard the company’s Autonomous Drone Ship “Just Read The Instructions.” The second stage will continue on, ultimately delivering Resilience to its orbit and on route to the station. For a more in depth look at the flight path, check out our article here. After catching up and docking with the station, the capsule will remain on station for approximately 6 months, with the crew remaining on station as part of the Expedition 64/65 crew.
The launch has been subject to some delays in the past few weeks, the first of which caused a 2 week shift from October 31st to November 14th, when an issue was found in new production Merlin engines following an aborted launch attempt of a GPS payload. This mechanical issue ultimately resulted in the removal, and replacement, of two engines from the rocket for this mission. Another 24 hour delay occurred on November 13th, when it was decided to move the launch attempt to the 15th due to projected high offshore winds and seas. Unlike other missions, crew launches require good weather conditions not just at the launch site, but at multiple abort recovery zones as well. With Dragon being a capsule that lands in the ocean, the seas must be stable enough to allow safe recovery of the astronauts should an abort occur. The same principal also applies to return to Earth following the end of a mission.
Launch site weather for this attempt however, is not as forgiving as the original launch date. The U.S. Space Force and 45th Space Wing’s 45th weather Squadron is responsible for launch forecasts. For the launch attempt on Sunday, weather at launch is currently projected to offer only a 50% chance of launch, with the primary concerns being the cumulus cloud rule, flight through precipitation, and surface electric field rule. The conditions are very similar to the launch of Demo-2, which suffered a weather related scrub just before its scheduled launch.
Should a a delay be incurred, the launch sits within an instantaneous launch window, meaning any delay will cause a scrub for the attempt. For this mission, the next attempt is Wednesday, November 18, and weather conditions are significantly better. For the 72 hour delay window, the launch sits at an 80% chance of launch, with concerns being the cumulus cloud rule and liftoff winds.
For those who are unable to view the launch in person, the launch may be viewed online through streams made available by SpaceX, or live on NASA TV. Stay tuned for further coverage of Crew-1, and Expedition 64/65.
Matt Haskell is a published aviation and spaceflight photographer and writer based in Merritt Island Florida. Born and raised outside Edwards Air Force Base and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, he moved to Florida’s Space Coast and began photographing and reporting spaceflight professionally full time in 2018.