Busy ISS Schedule, Texas Weather Impact Crew-2, OFT-2 Launch Dates

Busy ISS Schedule, Texas Weather Impact Crew-2, OFT-2 Launch Dates

The International Space Station (ISS) is a busy place these days. Trying to find the best times to send up new spacecraft is becoming a challenge. Coupled with impacts from storm-related electrical outages in Texas, NASA is delaying the launches of the next SpaceX Crew Dragon, Crew-2, and the second uncrewed test of Boeing’s Starliner, OFT-2. All of this at a time when NASA is warning about the need to have multiple ways to get U.S. astronauts to the ISS to ensure an American is always aboard.

NASA was planning to launch Crew-2 on April 20.  During a press conference today, however, NASA commercial crew program manager Steve Stich revealed the launch will slip several days as the agency and its international partners sort out a schedule for spacecraft arrivals and departures. Many factors are in play, including a beta-angle cut out in May where the angle of the Sun on the ISS precludes some operations.

The ISS is an international partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries operating through the European Space Agency (ESA). It has been occupied by international crews rotating on roughly 4-6 month schedules since November 2000, more than 20 years.

Seven people are currently aboard. Two Russians and an American arrived on Soyuz MS-17 last fall. Three Americans and a Japanese arrived on SpaceX’s Crew-1 in November.  Collectively they are “Expedition 64.”

ISS Expedition 64 (L-R): Kate Rubins (NASA), Victor Glover (NASA), Soichi Noguichi (JAXA), Sergey Ryzhikov (Roscosmos), Mike Hopkins (NASA), Shannon Walker (NASA), Sergey Kud-Sverchkov (Roscosmos). Credit: NASA

Among the operations planned over the next two months are the relocation later this month of the Crew-1 spacecraft from one port to another to free up its current location for Crew-2, the arrival of Crew-2 and the departure of Crew-1 in late April/early May, the arrival of Soyuz MS-18 on April 10 and the departure of Soyuz MS-17 on April 17, and the arrival of OFT-2 at a date to be determined.

Moving the Crew-1 spacecraft from one port to the other will take only about 45 minutes, but the flight crew (Hopkins, Glover, Noguchi and Walker) must suit up and get into the spacecraft just as if they were returning to Earth because that is a possibility if anything goes awry. SpaceX will have its recovery forces positioned in the Atlantic in case they are needed. Soyuz spacecraft often must be relocated this way, but it is the first time for a U.S. spacecraft.

The Soyuz MS-17 crew (Ryzhikov, Kud-Sverchkov and Rubins) will be replaced by the Soyuz MS-18 crew. The launch date is set for April 10, but not who will be aboard. Three Russians are currently assigned, but NASA is trying to get Russia to launch an American on that flight as the first step in a long-term arrangement where Americans will launch on Soyuz spacecraft and Russians on the U.S. systems on a no-exchange-of-funds basis. The goal is to ensure that at least one American and one Russian are always aboard ISS to operate their portions of the station throughout its lifetime.  NASA has paid Russia to launch Americans for the past decade and a half and Russia has not agreed to the new quid-pro-quo plan. NASA opened a solicitation for an “International Crew Exchange Seat” on February 9 to procure a seat.  Today ISS Program Manager Joel Montelbano said he could not discuss its status because the procurement is in a black-out period, but he hopes to be able to make an announcement by the end of next week.

During today’s press conference, Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, said getting such an agreement with Russia is “extremely critical” not just for this flight, but for the long term to guard against any number of contingencies that could arise.

Meanwhile, NASA is scheduling its own crew replacement flights using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and, soon, Boeing’s Starliner. Both were developed through public-private partnerships with NASA where the companies retain ownership of the systems and NASA purchases services.

Starliner’s first uncrewed test flight in December 2019 was only partially successful and it will refly that test, Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2). Launch was scheduled for March 29, moved up to March 25, then back to April 2.  Stich said it will slip again primarily because of power outages caused by the terrible winter storm in Texas that cut off electrical power for many days and delayed software testing. Now NASA has to find a slot in the busy ISS schedule to launch it, a work-in-progress.

The date for Crew-1’s return is also still to be determined. The agency wants a 5-7 day handover from Crew-1 to Crew-2 on ISS, so when Crew-2 launches is a factor in Crew-1’s return home. Stich said the April 20 date for launching Crew-2 is being adjusted to “optimize some of the orbital mechanics.”

Crew-2 is composed of two Americans, Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, a Japanese astronaut, Akihiko Hoshide, and an ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, from France.

Crew-2 (L-R): Megan McArthur (NASA), Thomas Pesquet (ESA), Akihiko Hoshide (JAXA), Shane Kimbrough (NASA).  Credit: NASA

After 20 years of permanent occupancy, ISS is only now coming into its own as a scientific research facility with enough crew members to conduct a robust set of experiments as well as dealing with day-to-day operations.

Until now, long-duration ISS missions were limited to six people because only Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft could remain docked for 6 months at a time. Soyuz not only ferries crews back and forth to Earth, but serves as a lifeboat in case of an emergency.  Two Soyuz typically are docked, giving six people a way out.

Crew Dragon and Starliner each can accommodate four.  With one Soyuz and one Crew Dragon or Starliner docked, the crew size can increase to seven.

That seventh person makes a big difference in terms of how much time is available for scientific research. ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, David Parker, said today the partners are now entering the “golden age of ISS scientific utilization” with a seven-person complement.  Pesquet added crews are still working to find the “sweet spot” of balancing their time between science and ordinary life — eating, sleeping, exercising, and maintenance chores — but they are “looking forward to figuring it out.”

Meanwhile, Lueders pointed out that Starliner needs to start flying and NASA needs to settle its schedule because SpaceX has other plans for Crew Dragon.  The commercial crew program was premised on SpaceX and Boeing finding customers other than NASA. SpaceX already has two non-NASA Crew Dragon launches scheduled within the next 12 months carrying private astronauts.  One will dock with ISS and the other will not.

It’s a busy time for humans in low Earth orbit, which many would say is not a bad problem to have.

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