Docking with ISS: The Nasa-SpaceX crew mission that ends US' launch drought

Topics NASA | SpaceX | SpaceX Falcon 9

NASA is resuming launches from US soil in partnership with SpaceX. The two astronauts in training. (Source: SpaceX)
Nine years after the suspension of shuttle missions, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) is now on the cusp of ending its launch drought. The agency is set to blast off two astronauts on a SpaceX flight into orbit. This will be the first instance of the space agency collaborating with a private player on a mission involving astronauts.

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida awaiting their launch, scheduled on May 27. Before leaving for Florida, Hurley said: “It's an incredible time for Nasa and the space programme as it again launches US crews from Florida, hopefully in just a week from now.”

The two astronauts are scheduled to take off next Wednesday afternoon atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, bound for the International Space Station (ISS). “On May 27, Nasa will again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil!" Jim Bridenstine, head of the Nasa, said in a tweet.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken ahead of leaving for Kennedy Space Centre. (Source: NASA)


Dough Hurley: The first Crew Dragon spacecraft commander, Dough Hurley is a retired US Marine Corps Colonel who has previously flown on two spaceflights. He served in the Navy as a fighter pilot and trained to fly on F/A-18 Hornet and became a test-pilot in 1997. He was selected to be an astronaut in the year 2000. Hurley made his first spaceflight in July 2009 as the pilot for STS-127 followed by STS-135 aboard space shuttle Atlantis, the last mission in July 2011.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in the newly designed space suits for the new flight missions. (Source: SpaceX)

Bob Behnken: Robert "Bob" Behnken is a US Air Force Colonel who is on his third trip to the space, having logged over 708 hours into orbit with over 37 hours of spacewalks. He flew into space with STS-123 in 2008 and STS-130 in 2010. Behnken has logged more than 1,500 flight hours and flown 25 different types of aircraft, according to his Nasa biography. He had been selected for the astronaut programme by Nasa in 2000.

The end of Nasa’s dependence on Russia

Should the launch be successful, Nasa will end its dependence on Russia and the use of Soyuz rockets for sending and receiving astronauts into orbit. Since July 2011, when space shuttle Atlantis’ touchdown on the Kennedy Space Centre, the US has relied on Russian Soyuz rockets to send Americans to the ISS. The STS-135 was the 135th and the final mission of the American Space Shuttle programme that launched on July 8, 2011, and landed on July 21, 2011.

The Falcon-9 rocket being readied for launch. (Source: SpaceX)

On April 9, Chris Cassidy became the last Nasa astronaut to fly to the ISS on board a Russian Soyuz rocket that lifted from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with two other cosmonauts on board – Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. According to Forbes, since the retirement of the space shuttle, Nasa has bought flights for its astronauts on Soyuz at a cost of $86 million per seat. In total, 38 Americans have flown on 35 launches since 2011.

The revolutionary SpaceX

The space shuttle programme was retired four decades after it began service, a prime reason was the high cost of maintenance. With the massive spacecraft comprising over millions of parts, maintenance came at a hefty cost.

Boeing received a $4.2-billion deal to develop a capsule called the CST-100 Starliner. (Source: SpaceX)

Enter SpaceX. The company has been at the forefront of technological advancement under Elon Musk. From the development of reusable rockets to designing the Crew Dragon capsule, the company has grown leaps and bounds. SpaceX was awarded the $2.6-billion project to finish the development of the Crew Dragon-Falcon 9 system by Nasa in 2014, along with Boeing, which received a $4.2-billion deal to develop a capsule called the CST-100 Starliner. SpaceX will fly six operational crewed missions to the ISS under the deal. The Crew Dragon has been into orbit and docked with the ISS on an uncrewed flight called Demo-1 in March 2019. Demo-2 is the crewed mission.

Docking to re-entry

The two Nasa test pilots — Hurley and Behnken — will arrive on the launchpad about three hours before the launch in Tesla Model X Sports Car, ditching the traditional “Astrovan”. They will enter the spacecraft about 2 hours 15 minutes prior to the launch.

The Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled for a liftoff at 4:33 pm EDT (2033 GMT). After 2.5 minutes of the liftoff, SpaceX will perform the first-stage booster separation on the Falcon 9. As the rockets begin their descent, they will land on a drone ship called “Of course, I still love you” stationed in the Atlantic Ocean with a boost-back burn followed by an entry burn.

The astronauts will arrive on the launchpad about three hours before the launch in Tesla Model X Sports Car. (Source: NASA)

Seconds after the Stage-I separation, Stage-II will kick in with an engine burn for about six minutes. The Crew Dragon will separate at this stage and will be on its own into the vastness of space. The spacecraft will then perform a series of phasing manoeuvres to approach and dock with the ISS. The Dragon will have to match the altitude of the ISS, which is placed at about 400 km. The spacecraft is expected to dock with the ISS about 19 hours after the liftoff.

A similar procedure will be followed for a re-entry with the Dragon ditching its “trunk” and jettisoning its service module. After entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the heat shields will protect the capsule and the four Mark-3 parachutes will be deployed to slow down before the crew splashes down into the Atlantic off the coast of Florida.

Falcon-9 during one of its test launches. (Source: SpaceX)

While the duration of the mission has not been fixed, it is expected to last between 30 and 120 days, depending on the state of the Dragon capsule.

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