Jam-Packed Schedule Pits Artemis Test Against Private Astronaut Mission

Jam-Packed Schedule Pits Artemis Test Against Private Astronaut Mission

April 3 is set to be a big day at Kennedy Space Center, but it remains to be seen whether it’s a big day for a long-awaited Artemis I test or the launch of the first U.S. private astronaut crew to the International Space Station. Sitting on adjacent launch pads, only one can actually take place that day. NASA is eager to get the Artemis I test done, but launching the Axiom-1 crew has to fit into the crowded schedule of missions to the ISS. NASA’s head of space operations calls the scheduling challenge a “good problem to have.”

Kathy Lueders, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations, told reporters last evening that both missions have 8-10 more days of processing ahead of them and she will be monitoring their progress before deciding which gets to go on April 3.

She spoke at a briefing following the successful Flight Readiness Review for Axiom-1, the first private astronaut flight for the U.S. company Axiom Space. It not only offers visits to the ISS for private astronauts, but is building modules that will attach to the ISS and eventually detach and become a free-flying commercial space station. Michael Suffredini, a former ISS program manager, left NASA in 2015 to co-found Axiom Space. He has hired two highly experienced former NASA astronauts, Michael López-Alegria and Peggy Whitson, to command Axiom missions on SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.

The spacecraft can accommodate four people. López-Alegria will command Ax-1. The other three are paying customers, all wealthy entrepreneurs: American Larry Connor, Canadian Mark Pathy, and Israeli Eytan Stibbe. Whitson will command Ax-2, scheduled for early next year. Her passengers and the four people who will fly on Ax-3 are already chosen, Suffredini said, and two of the four seats on Ax-4 are filled with customers lining up for the remaining two. The price has not been publicly revealead, but is thought to be about $55 million each for a 10-day excursion, eight of which are on ISS.

Axiom-1 crew, L-R; Larry Connor (U.S.), Mark Pathy (Canada), Michael López-Alegria (U.S.), Eytan Stibbe (Israel). Credit: Axiom Space

If Ax-1 does not win the race for April 3, they can launch on any of the next days through April 7, weather permitting. After that, it begins to intrude on the schedule for launching NASA’s own Crew-4 to ISS. They will relieve the four-person Crew-3 crew currently on board.

Crew-4 is scheduled for launch on April 19. Ax-1 needs to return after its 10-day flight before Crew-4 launches because they both need the same docking port. NASA has only two available docking ports. Crew-3’s Crew Dragon is at the other.

The Crew-4 crew, L-R: Jessica Watkins (NASA), Robert Hines (NASA), Kjell Lindgren (NASA), Samantha Cristoforetti (ESA/Italy). Credit: NASA

If Ax-1 slips past April 7 due to weather or technical problems, the launch of Crew-4 will have to slip day-for-day. Crew-3 cannot return until Crew-4 is aboard because at least one American needs to be on ISS at any given time and all the Americans who will be there in early April (Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, and Kayla Barron) are part of Crew-3. Another American, Mark Vande Hei, is returning to Earth on Wednesday with two Russian cosmonauts on Soyuz MS-19.

Crew Dragons splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico so the weather has to be just right not only for launch, but for when Ax-1 and Crew-3 undock and return to Earth, another complication.

The agency has to juggle all of those ISS comings and goings of SpaceX Crew Dragons while also getting ready for Boeing’s latest attempt to launch its Starliner uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2 in mid-May. That also will dock at ISS.

Asked how NASA is managing this traffic jam, Lueders just said “it’s a good problem to have.” But she also indicated that’s another reason to do the Artemis I test first to get it out of the way.

The test is a Wet Dress Rehearsal where the Space Launch System rocket will be fueled (“wet”) and NASA will conduct a practice countdown for the first Artemis mission, an uncrewed test flight beyond the Moon and back. NASA won’t set an actual launch date for Artemis I until after the test is completed and results analyzed.

Artemis missions will take off from KSC’s Launch Complex 39-B, adjacent to Launch Complex 39-A that SpaceX leases from NASA for launching Crew Dragon and other spacecraft. This type of test and launch operations cannot take place on both pads simultaneously and at least a day of separation is needed to replenish commodities like gaseous nitrogen (GN2) used to purge systems during test and countdown procedures.

Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39 with its two launch pads, 39-A and 39-B.  Undated photo by NASA’s Cory Huston via Wikimedia.

The Artemis I rocket and spacecraft rolled-out to LC-39B on March 17-18. If all goes well with the Wet Dress Rehearsal, the launch could take place in June.

The Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft for the Artemis I mission arrives at Launch Complex 39-B, Kennedy Space Center, March 18, 2022. Photo credit: NASA

Artemis is NASA’s program to return astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo program. Artemis II, expected in 2024, will send a crew around the Moon, but they will not land. That will wait for Artemis III, planned for 2025. Artemis is an international program, with the European Space Agency providing the Service Module for the Orion spacecraft, and ESA, Japan and Canada joining the United States in building a small space station, Gateway, that will orbit the Moon.

Until recently, NASA had hoped Russia would also participate in Gateway, keeping the ISS partnership intact, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed everything. Except for ISS, virtually all space cooperation between Russia and western countries has been suspended. ISS is co-dependent on Russia and the United States, however, and NASA is determined to keep it operating until 2030 when commercial space stations, like Axiom’s, are ready to replace it.

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