Crew-2 Launches to ISS on Reused Rocket and Spacecraft

Crew-2 Launches to ISS on Reused Rocket and Spacecraft

A four-person crew lifted off from Kennedy Space Center at 5:49 am ET this morning on a reused SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in a reused SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.  Docking is scheduled for 5:10 am ET tomorrow morning where this crew will join seven colleagues already aboard the International Space Station (ISS), four of whom will return home next week.

ISS in a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency (ESA). Last November it celebrated its 20th anniversary of permanent human occupancy with international crews rotating on roughly 4-6 month schedules during that entire time.

Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft was the only way of getting crews to and from the ISS after the U.S. space shuttle was terminated in 2011, but that changed last year with the certification of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon “commercial crew” system. Today’s launch is the third in 11 months.

Boeing is also developing a commercial crew system, Starliner, which is still in testing. The company will repeat its uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) in August or September.  The company says it actually will be ready by May, but with so much going on at the ISS these days, it must wait until a docking port will be available. A Crew Flight Test will follow and then operational service.  The first OFT in December 2019 did not go as planned.

Crew Dragon and Starliner both can accommodate four people, while Soyuz carries three.  On a typical day, one Soyuz and one Crew Dragon or Starliner will be docked at ISS allowing a seven-person long-duration crew.

That number grows temporarily during crew rotations like the one currently underway. Seven people already are on ISS — four from NASA, two from Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, and one from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Currently aboard ISS: four members of Crew-1 in blue (L-R, NASA’s Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Michael Hopkins and JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi) and three members of Soyuz MS-18 in white (L-R, NASA’s Mark Vande Hei and Roscosmos’ Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov). Credit: NASA

The four astronauts on this mission, Crew-2, will increase that to 11 until Wednesday when Crew-1 returns. For the first time, two Japanese astronauts will be in orbit at the same time. Soichi Noguchi is a member of Crew-1, which arrived in November 2020, and Aki Hoshide is on Crew-2.

The crew of Crew-2: Megan McArthur (NASA), Thomas Pesquet (ESA/France), Aki Hoshide (JAXA), Shane Kimbrough (NASA). Credit: NASA

NASA’s space shuttle orbiters and Solid Rocket Boosters were reusable, so this is not the first time people have launched to space on reused or “flight proven” vehicles, but it is the first time for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon.  This Falcon 9 first stage launched Crew-1 in November, and the Crew Dragon spacecraft Endeavour flew SpaceX’s crewed flight test Demo-2 last summer with Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.  Behnken is married to Megan McArthur, the pilot on this flight of Endeavour.

SpaceX routinely reuses the first stages of its Falcon 9 rockets, which return to land either on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean or on terra firma at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  Today the first stage landed on SpaceX’s drone ship Of Course I Still Love You.

Crew-2 is scheduled to dock at the ISS tomorrow morning at 5:10 am ET. The hatches between ISS and Crew Dragon Endeavour will open about 7:15 am ET and a welcome ceremony with the crew on orbit and officials from NASA, JAXA and ESA on the ground is planned for 7:45 am ET.  NASA TV is providing continuous live coverage of the mission until that ceremony concludes.

Crews remain for about 6 months and then are replaced by a new complement.  A wholesale crew rotation is underway right now. Two Russians and an American launched on Soyuz MS-18 on April 9, a different set of two Russians and an American returned to Earth on Soyuz MS-17 on April 17, Crew-2 launched today, and Crew-1 will return on April 28.

The new seven-person crew — three from Soyuz MS-18 and four from Crew-2 — can then settle down to work until the next switchover in the fall.  SpaceX plans to launch a “civilian” crew, meaning all space tourists rather than professional astronauts, on the Inspiration4 mission during that time, but it will not dock at ISS.

Meanwhile, China is getting ready to launch the first of three modules for its new China Space Station (CSS) perhaps next week. China has not officially said exactly when the launch of the module, Tianhe, will take place, but hours before this morning’s Crew-2 launch, China’s official news agency Xinhua confirmed rumors the launch is near.

China space expert Andrew Jones (@AJ_FL) reports the launch on a Long March 5 rocket is expected April 29, which could be April 28 Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) depending on the time of day.  China is 12 hours ahead of EDT.

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