Scientific research to widen on ISS as SpaceX eyes commercial crew missions

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk speaks with Nasa International Space Station Program Manger Kirk Shireman after the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. (Nasa)
“Thank your flying SpaceX”: This message, sent to Bob Benkhen and Dough Hurley, the two astronauts on board the Crew Dragon Endeavour, as they splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, ushered in a new era of commercial space exploration. With the success of the human test flight of a new spacecraft, SpaceX created history by launching and landing humans on the earth, perfecting a new system for space flight. 

Riding high on the wave of this historic mission, the company, led by billionaire Elon Musk, is all set for its next mission, Crew-1, to send four astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and bring them back home, thereby setting the tone for the commercialisation of space travel. Japanese mission specialist Soichi Noguchi is one of these four astronauts.

While the official date for the launch is yet to be released, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), along with SpaceX, is aiming for late September. 

Nasa has announced the names of four astronauts who will be leaving for the ISS come September. (Nasa)

Commercial Crew Programme and the science on board

The launch of the Crew-1 mission will see the return of a stable rotation of four US Operating Segment (USOS) members to the ISS under the  Commercial Crew Program (CCP). The station crew consists of six people, three of them USOS members, but it functions with as few as three in total crew. Nasa's commercial crew contracts call for transporting four crew members to space at a time. 

Commercial flights are key to the ongoing scientific work on the space station, the only platform for long-duration research in microgravity. During its nearly 20 years of continuous occupation, the orbiting lab’s residents have conducted almost 3,000 experiments in many scientific fields, as well as technology demonstrations. Accord to Nasa, “CCP is part of ongoing efforts to increase the time dedicated to advancing important science and technology demonstrations to enable future missions to the moon and mars.” 

Elon Musk-led SpaceX has made commercial space travel a reality in 2020. (Nasa)

Pushing the envelope for long duration spaceflights

The station is a critical testbed for Nasa to understand overcome the challenges of long-duration spaceflight. With commercial companies focusing on providing human transportation services to and from low-earth orbit, Nasa is now free to push for building spacecraft and rockets for deep space missions. Commercial crew flights also enable Nasa to adjust the duration of astronaut visits in order to close gaps in data on how long-duration space missions affect human health.

The station is a critical testbed for Nasa to understand and overcome the challenges of long-duration spaceflight.

ISS Deputy Chief Scientist Jennifer Buchli says: “We have quite a bit of data about the physiological changes astronauts experience during six-month expeditions and short-duration flights through the space shuttle programme. But to increase our understanding of astronaut health and develop countermeasures, we need missions of roughly one year as well as those of 30- to 60-day durations.”

First astronauts to board commercial flight

Nasa has so far announced the names of four astronauts who will be leaving for the ISS in September. Crew Dragon commander Michael Hopkins, pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialist Shannon Walker – all of Nasa – along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) mission specialist Soichi Noguchi have been chosen for the first commercial flight of the Dragon. 

Nasa astronauts smile and give a thumbs-up after the @SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour's hatch was opened. (Nasa)

Commander Hopkins, a test pilot with the US Air Force, was a member of the Expedition 37/38 crew that docked with ISS in 2013 and has logged 166 days in space. He has conducted two spacewalks to repair the ISS. Mission specialist Shanon Walker, part of the 19th class of astronauts, served as Flight Engineer for Expedition 24/25 in 2010, when she stayed on the ISS for 163 days. Japanese astronaut Noguchi has been to the ISS thrice, in 2001 with Space Shuttle Discovery, in 2009 as the first Japanese left-seater for the Soyuz spacecraft where he spent 161 days aboard the ISS as a Flight Engineer and returned in 2017 as part of Expedition 62/63 Mission crew, logging a total of 177 days.

ALSO READ: First splashdown in 45 years: SpaceX guides Nasa astronauts' safe return

Falcon 9, Dragon pairing fares well for SpaceX

The four astronauts will blast off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on board the reusable Dragon Endeavour, which splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico with Astronaut Bob Benkhen and Dough Hurley on August 2. With SpaceX completing its Demo-2 mission that ticked all the boxes for launching, docking, re-entry, splashdown and recovery operations, the new mission is expected to sail smoothly. 

The Draon is a reusable capsule to transport humans and cargo to low earth orbit. (Nasa)

The Dragon, which can carry a maximum of seven astronauts in a single flight, will lift off atop the reliable Falcon 9 rockets that were used in the Demo-1 mission. The Falcon 9, the first orbital-class rocket capable of a re-flight, has emerged as a firebrand for SpaceX after 87 successful launches, 48 landings, and being reflown 33 times.

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