NASA and SpaceX are under two months away from their currently scheduled launch date for the first crewed missions of American astronauts, on American rockets, from American soil; but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to plan for what’s coming after that.
The excitement is building for SpaceX’s second Crew Dragon mission, DM-2, which is poised to be the first mission that will finally have an actual crew on board and headed for the International Space Station. This Demonstration Mission, scheduled for mid-to-late May 2020, will see NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley put the Crew Dragon capsule through its paces. It was originally intended to be a short duration mission of just a few days, but is looking more likely to be a longer duration operational mission as NASA tries to keep the ISS staffed with American astronauts. This mission is still considered to be a demonstration of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule’s capabilities, while the mission that follows DM-2 will be USCV-1, otherwise known as Crew-1, and will be the first regular operational crewed mission for SpaceX as early as the fourth quarter of 2020.
On March 31st, the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) along with NASA announced that two additional astronauts would join the already scheduled NASA astronauts, Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover Jr., to make Crew-1 a mission ferrying a total of four astronauts to the ISS. The additional two astronauts will be JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi and NASA astronaut Shannon Walker and the crew of four will spend six months aboard the International Space Station as part of the regular rotational flights to keep the ISS operational.
Both Noguchi and Walker are veteran astronauts with Walker launching aboard Soyuz TMA-19 and logging 163 days in space over the duration of ISS Expeditions 24 and 25. Noguchi is a veteran from both the Space Shuttle and Soyuz vehicles having been a part of Expedition 22 and flying on board the Soyuz TMA-17 flight and Space Shuttle mission STS-114, NASA’s “return to flight” after the Columbia disaster.
All of this, though, will hinge on a successful flight for SpaceX’s DM-2 mission. Everyone will be watching the developments and scrutinizing every move as SpaceX is entrusted with the lives of their first two crew members. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has achieved incredible reliability with its cargo missions thus far, but development issues with parachutes and a major test anomaly have caused the program to stumble along the way. Both SpaceX and NASA are also currently investigating a recent engine failure on their latest Starlink mission that they’ll need to wrap up before flying the DM-2 mission.
Boeing which is SpaceX’s counterpart and competitor in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, has also suffered what some may say more than enough problems with their Starliner capsule after their failure to reach the ISS on their OFT demonstration mission back in December 2019.
Boeing’s latest developments suggest that they may be ready for another flight as early as August 2020, but a full accounting and reconciliation over the shortcomings in their testing program and related software issues will be required for many to feel comfortable with placing crew on board the Starliner capsule. The good news in all of this, though, is that progress is being made and it seems that we are merely weeks away from finally seeing astronauts launch again on American rockets, from American soil!