SpaceX Live Updates: NASA’s Crew-3 Awaits Launch to Space Station

The four will replace a crew that landed in the Gulf of Mexico on Monday. They will stay in orbit until April 2022.

Nov. 10, 2021, 8:56 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 8:56 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

SpaceX mission control is bidding farewell to Crew-3, minutes before liftoff. “Sometimes when you try to fly on Halloween, you get a trick instead of a treat,” says Raja Chari, Crew-3 commander. The mission was initially slated to launch on Oct. 31.

Nov. 10, 2021, 8:48 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 8:48 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

Bill Nelson, NASA’s chief, is at Kennedy Space Center wearing his flight jacket from the Space Shuttle Columbia mission he flew on as a specialist in 1986. He’ll witness his first crewed mission as administrator.

Nov. 10, 2021, 8:45 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 8:45 p.m. ET
The Dragon capsule, “Endurance” in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Tuesday.Credit…Joe Skipper/Reuters

If something goes wrong with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket just before liftoff or during the ascent toward space, the capsule where astronauts sit can shoot itself off the top of the rocket using an emergency abort system. Eight engines packed within the outer walls of Crew Dragon, called SuperDraco thrusters, fire simultaneously to jet the capsule away from the rocket. The vehicle then deploys a set of parachutes to softly land the crew in the ocean.

SpaceX tested this safety sequence before flying humans in early 2020, setting off the capsule’s abort system midflight and detonating a Falcon 9 booster shortly after. The test was a success.

Since that test, SpaceX has lifted astronauts to orbit four times. During the first mission in May 2020, two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, flew to the International Space Station. It was the first crewed launch from American soil since the space shuttle was retired in 2011. SpaceX has subsequently flown three successful crewed missions: two other missions to the space station carrying a mix of astronauts from NASA, Japan and the European Space Agency, and one fully private tourist mission bankrolled by a billionaire entrepreneur.

For that private mission, four passengers orbited Earth for three days inside the Crew Dragon spacecraft at an altitude roughly 100 miles higher than the space station. It then safely splashed down in the ocean.

Nov. 10, 2021, 8:30 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 8:30 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

SpaceX has started filling the Falcon 9 rocket with thousands of gallons of two types of propellant — liquid oxygen and kerosene.

Nov. 10, 2021, 8:24 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 8:24 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

Crew Dragon’s launch escape has been armed, and the access arm has fully backed away. Liftoff is about 40 minutes from now

Nov. 10, 2021, 8:20 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 8:20 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

The crew access bridge has backed away from the capsule. Soon, Crew Dragon’s launch escape system — a set of eight thrusters that can launch the capsule off the rocket in an emergency — will be armed.

Nov. 10, 2021, 8:16 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 8:16 p.m. ET

A crew of four astronauts isn’t the only thing SpaceX will deliver to the station. Four hundred pounds of cargo and supplies are on board, including 150 pounds’ worth of supplies for research and science experiments.

“We’re guinea pigs up there,” Matthias Maurer, the Crew-3 mission specialist, said during a news conference in October. A former paramedic, Dr. Maurer said he was looking forward to research involving life sciences, “particularly the work that we do on ourselves.”

For one of the experiments, some astronauts will stick to “an enhanced spaceflight diet” as part of the Food Physiology investigation, which aims to determine the healthiest diet for astronauts living in space for extended periods of time. The results are expected to prove useful for NASA’s future long-duration missions to the moon and, eventually, Mars. A researcher at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston will conduct weekly meetings with participating astronauts throughout their stay on the space station to discuss their diets.

The food investigation’s data “is expected to provide one of the most comprehensive and interdisciplinary human diet, immune, and gut microbiome studies ever completed in microgravity or on Earth,” NASA said on its website.

Another experiment will test technology to calculate the position and altitude of a spacecraft. Hector Guiterrez, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology, is leading the experiment and plans to test software with the space station’s Astrobee system, a network of three robots that serve as assistants to astronauts on the station. The test data gleaned from this experiment could improve how consumer drones on Earth land autonomously or how robots physically interact with one another.

That’s just the start: Over 200 other experiments are planned for the Crew-3 astronauts, from printing fiber optics to studying how concrete hardens in microgravity.

Nov. 10, 2021, 8:08 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 8:08 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

Less than an hour before liftoff, SpaceX says everything with the Crew Dragon capsule looks good so far. The rain clouds have largely disappeared and the weather is good for launch.

Nov. 10, 2021, 7:46 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 7:46 p.m. ET
An image taken from NASA video showing the Dragon Crew-2 capsule descending into the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, Fla., on Monday.Credit…NASA, via Associated Press

Another crew of four astronauts, Crew-2, splashed down safely in the Gulf of Mexico inside a different Crew Dragon capsule on Monday. A set of four large parachutes were released about four minutes before they landed. Those chutes are designed to fully unfurl almost instantly once the capsule comes within a mile from landing. But one took roughly a minute to inflate, heaping most of the burden of slowing the capsule on the other three chutes.

The capsule’s rate of descent still looked good, NASA and SpaceX officials said, but the one “laggy chute,” as described by Kathy Lueders, NASA’s space operations chief, was a glitch that demanded close inspection.

NASA officials discussed the chute issue at length with SpaceX engineers during a routine safety review at Kennedy Space Center ahead of Wednesday’s launch of the Crew-3 astronauts in another Crew Dragon capsule. When those astronauts return in April, they will need to rely on the same type of parachutes.

After examining flight data from Crew-2’s return and the parachute’s manufacturing records from the subcontractor that builds them, teams found no issues with the chute that should prevent Crew-3 from heading to space, said Bill Gerstenmaier, a SpaceX official who once oversaw human spaceflight for NASA, on Tuesday night.

“We’re still learning how to operate these vehicles, we’re learning how to fly in space,” he said, “and the way you do that safely is you keep looking at the data and you learn from each and every flight.”

SpaceX retrieved the Crew-2 capsule’s spent parachutes from the Gulf of Mexico and shipped them back to its facilities in Cape Canaveral, Fla., for inspection. Officials hung the faulty chute off a crane and examined it in daylight “to make sure that there was nothing in that parachute that we didn’t understand,” Mr. Gerstenmaier said. He added that everything looked normal.

Although the other three chutes can carry Crew Dragon’s weight, the capsule’s “laggy” chute seen Monday night highlights how simple parachutes are still essential to safe spacecraft landings on Earth and other worlds, like Mars. For instance, parachute problems have impeded the on-time launch of ExoMars, a joint European-Russian robotic rover for the red planet.

Descent parachutes have also been a headache for NASA over years of testing and a persistent development challenge for both SpaceX and Boeing, the other company under NASA’s Commercial Crew program that is building Starliner, another astronaut capsule that is years behind SpaceX.

“It is behavior we’ve seen multiple times in other tests,” Ms. Lueders said on Monday night about the faulty chute, adding it’s something that “usually happens when the lines kind of bunch up together” until forced open during descent by the wind.

“The thing that makes me feel a little more confident is that the loading and the deceleration of the spacecraft all looked nominal for us, which is good news,” she said.

Nov. 10, 2021, 7:33 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 7:33 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

Weather balloons deployed by launch officials show better conditions for launch. The clouds are starting to clear up sooner than expected, and it “should be clear the rest of the way through the countdown,” SpaceX’s John Insprucker said.

Nov. 10, 2021, 7:09 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 7:09 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

The door to Crew Dragon has been closed, marking another step toward liftoff as rain continues to shower the launchpad.

Nov. 10, 2021, 7:06 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 7:06 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

Getting Crew Dragon set for launch is a slow, methodical process. SpaceX personnel took photos of Crew Dragon’s hatch door area before pulling down the door. They’re working to seal the door completely shut.

Nov. 10, 2021, 7:01 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 7:01 p.m. ET
The Crew Dragon toilet, upper right.Credit…T. Pesquet/ESA/NASA

The toilet on another Crew Dragon capsule sprang a leak in September during Inspiration4, SpaceX’s first fully private mission. None of the four passengers noticed the problem during the mission, according to Bill Gerstenmaier, a SpaceX vice president.

When the capsule returned from its three-day jaunt in orbit, engineers found urine throughout an internal section beneath Crew Dragon’s interior floor. The source: a broken tube from the capsule’s toilet that funnels waste into an internal tank.

Mr. Gerstenmaier detailed the toilet incident during a news conference with NASA officials in October and described how SpaceX had scrambled to fix the issue before the launch of the new Crew Dragon capsule on Wednesday. The company replaced the old tube system with a new tube that’s fully welded to its tank and incapable of coming “unglued,” Mr. Gerstenmaier said.

Those fixes were approved by NASA late last month, just before Crew-3’s first launch attempt on Halloween (it was delayed several times after that). The toilet dilemma, however, remained on the Crew Dragon that was docked to the space station until Monday.

The toilet system on that capsule, nicknamed Endeavour, also leaked urine beneath its interior floor, worrying officials on the ground that it could corrode some of the capsule’s aluminum parts and hamper its ability to return astronauts home safely. SpaceX engineers conducted experiments on the ground to test whether the urine, which is mixed with an anti-ammonia compound, could corrode the aluminum.

SpaceX officials said the urine-oxone mixture had little effect on the aluminum parts, citing its experiment and inspections of the Inspiration4 capsule. Heavy coats of paint on Crew Dragon were “a great blocking agent to the liquid,” Sarah Walker, SpaceX’s mission management director for Crew Dragon, told reporters during a news conference.

“We learned that the liquid evaporates within just a couple days,” Ms. Walker said. “And that really limits the impact that we observed when we were doing all of our post-flight inspections.”

The Crew-2 astronauts were instructed not to use Endeavour’s toilet during their 8.5-hour trip home; instead they were to use undergarments — astronaut-grade diapers built into their flight suits.

Fortunately for Crew-3, the facilities are functioning during the voyage of some 22 hours to the space station.

Nov. 10, 2021, 6:55 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 6:55 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

SpaceX personnel will close Crew Dragon’s hatch door at 7:08 p.m. A little less than an hour later, the bridge connecting the capsule to the launch tower will retract.

Nov. 10, 2021, 6:53 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 6:53 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

SpaceX’s mission control just finished testing Crew Dragon’s communications system with the astronauts. It’s now a waiting game until liftoff as launch personnel and the astronauts get the onboard computers ready and also complete other tasks on the pre-launch checklist.

Nov. 10, 2021, 6:49 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 6:49 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

It’s currently raining at the launch pad, but the weather forecast remains the same: 70 percent chance of favorable weather at the 9:03 p.m. liftoff time.

Nov. 10, 2021, 6:32 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 6:32 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

The astronauts are in good spirits as they get buckled into their custom-built Crew Dragon seats — Matthias Maurer, the German astronaut on board, even checked in with SpaceX mission control in his native language.

Nov. 10, 2021, 6:22 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 6:22 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

Before boarding Crew Dragon, each astronaut signed their name on a wall in the “white room,” the small vestibule just outside the capsule. It’s a tradition that dates back to the days of NASA’s space shuttles, which were retired in 2011.

Nov. 10, 2021, 6:20 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 6:20 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

The astronauts are crossing the crew access arm, the sleek, fluorescent-lit bridge that leads to the Crew Dragon capsule. The suit specialists are wiping rainwater off the astronauts’ flight suits and helmets.

Nov. 10, 2021, 6:16 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 6:16 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

A small team of specialists dressed in black, nicknamed ninjas, will help the astronauts settle into their capsule. They’re all at the top of the launch tower.

Nov. 10, 2021, 6:06 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 6:06 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

The astronauts have arrived at 39-A, the launchpad SpaceX leases for crewed launches. They’ll soon take an elevator to the top of the launch tower.

Nov. 10, 2021, 6:03 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 6:03 p.m. ET
Crew Dragon Endeavour arriving at the International Space Station in April.Credit…NASA, via Associated Press

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is a gumdrop-shaped astronaut capsule that can seat up to seven people, but it has flown only four-person crews so far. The capsule launches to space atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, detaches from the booster once in orbit and uses a set of tiny onboard thrusters to gradually nudge itself toward a meet-up with the International Space Station.

The capsule flying to space on Tuesday is new, and was nicknamed Endurance by the astronauts of the Crew-3 mission. If its flight is successful, it will also probably be used by future astronauts. SpaceX’s last astronaut mission that launched in April and returned on Monday was nicknamed Endeavour. It was the same capsule used for SpaceX’s first astronaut flight in May 2020. SpaceX refurbishes its spacecraft in a Cape Canaveral, Fla., facility it calls “Dragon Land.”

The flights typically take about 24 hours. Shortly after reaching space, Crew Dragon lifts open a top lid, resembling the tip of an eggshell, to expose its docking adapter. The spacecraft approaches the space station in a headfirst position and autonomously docks to one of the station’s entry ports.

SpaceX developed the astronaut taxi with roughly $3 billion from a NASA program called Commercial Crew. The goal of the program was that private companies would own the spacecraft they build, with NASA being just one customer among many buying seats for astronauts. The agency’s previous mode of transportation to the space station was the space shuttle. But the shuttle program was retired in 2011, requiring NASA to buy expensive seats for its astronauts on Russia’s Soyuz rocket for nearly a decade as SpaceX and Boeing, the other company working under Commercial Crew, developed their capsules.

SpaceX’s first mission sending humans to space — a revival of NASA’s ability to loft humans to space from American soil — was in May 2020, with two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, riding Crew Dragon to the space station for a roughly two-month stay. The company has since launched two successful crewed missions for NASA with a combination of American astronauts and crews from Japan and the European Space Agency.

Boeing, the aerospace giant and plane maker, is far behind SpaceX. Development of its Starliner capsule has been marred by a range of technical issues, and it is at least a year away from flying its first crew of astronauts.

Nov. 10, 2021, 5:51 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 5:51 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

The astronauts walked out of Kennedy Space Center’s crew quarters, followed closely by staff holding umbrellas to shield them from a light rainstorm. They waved to family and friends before beginning the short drive to the launchpad.

Nov. 10, 2021, 5:47 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 5:47 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator and a former senator from Florida, is greeting the astronauts before they head to the launchpad. He became the second member of Congress to fly to space in 1986 when he flew as a payload specialist aboard Space Shuttle Columbia.

Nov. 10, 2021, 5:20 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 5:20 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

The weather doesn’t look very good in Florida right now, but the rain clouds are forecast to clear up before the 9:03 p.m. launch time, with 70 percent favorability for liftoff.

Nov. 10, 2021, 5:13 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 5:13 p.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting on spaceflight.

The four astronauts are getting suited up inside a NASA facility at Kennedy Space Center. They’ll hop in the back of two white Tesla cars shortly to make their way to the launch pad in the next hour.

Nov. 10, 2021, 5:03 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 5:03 p.m. ET
A NASA-TV-provided view of the I.S.S. from the Dragon Crew-2 capsule as it undocked on Monday.Credit…NASA, via Associated Press

On Wednesday, about six hours before NASA’s Crew-3 mission launched to orbit, the International Space Station was forced to maneuver itself to avoid a piece of debris spawned by a Chinese antisatellite weapon test in 2007.

The piece of junk was projected to enter what’s called the “pizza box,” a square-shaped zone 2.5 miles deep and 30 miles wide, where the station sits in the middle. NASA officials keep close eyes on the zone using data models on the location of objects in space kept by the U.S. Space Command.

Faced with a threat to the zone, the agency worked with Russia’s space agency in Moscow to fire station thrusters that raised its altitude by just under a mile.

“It just makes sense to go ahead and do this burn and put this behind us so we can ensure the safety of the crew,” Joel Montalbano, NASA’s space station manager, told reporters during a news conference on Tuesday.

The debris is a remnant of China’s Fengyun-1C, a weather satellite that launched in 1999 and was decommissioned in 2002 but remained in orbit. In 2007, China targeted the defunct satellite with a ballistic missile on the ground, blowing the satellite to smithereens and creating over 3,000 pieces of debris. The missile test drew condemnation from the United States and other countries at the time.

The wreckage from the satellite was expected to make its close pass of the space station this coming Thursday night, according to Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks objects in space. But now that the station has moved, the threat of a collision is minuscule.

A large portion of that debris cloud is expected to stay in orbit for decades, threatening the space station and other spacecraft.

The station has carried out 29 such avoidance maneuvers since 1999, a year after its construction began. In some instances, astronauts had to board their spacecraft and brace for an emergency departure in case the station was hit and sustained damage.

Only the United States, Russia, China and India have launched antisatellite tests. The most recent occurred in 2019, when India blew up a defunct satellite, an effort to signal its capability for projecting military force in space.

The SpaceX mission that carried four astronauts for NASA, Japan and France to the space station in April had a space debris scare. SpaceX mission control alerted the astronauts that a piece of space debris was projected to whiz by the capsule, although nothing came close, and the crew safely reached the space station on April 24.

Days later, U.S. Space Command determined that the alert was the result of a “reporting error” and “that there was never a collision threat because there was no object at risk of colliding with the capsule.” Still, the incident renewed discussion about the growing threat of space debris and other clutter in low-Earth orbit.

Nov. 10, 2021, 4:08 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 4:08 p.m. ET
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket being moved into position on the launchpad on Wednesday.Credit…Joel Kowsky/NASA/EPA, via Shutterstock

Liftoff of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, with the astronauts in the Crew Dragon sitting on top, is scheduled for 9:03 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday. NASA will host a livestream of the launch on NASA TV and its YouTube channel beginning at 4:45 p.m..

That video stream will last through Crew Dragon’s docking at the space station less than 24 hours later, expected at 7:10 p.m. on Thursday. The astronauts will board the station shortly after and partake in a live-streamed welcoming ceremony at 9:20 p.m. to greet the space station’s current inhabitants.

Weather around NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where Falcon 9 will launch from, is expected to be favorable for an on-time liftoff, with only a 30 percent chance of bad weather that could cause a delay, according to Space Force weather officers.

But “it’s not just what happens at the launchpad,” said Will Ulrich, a launch weather officer at the Space Force’s 45th Space Wing in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Officials also monitor weather conditions along the path Falcon 9 takes to get to space, a trajectory called the ascent corridor that runs north along the East Coast. If Crew Dragon needs to trigger its emergency abort system to save the astronauts from a problem with the rocket once it launches, the capsule would need to land under good weather conditions anywhere along that corridor.

“Those conditions, unfortunately, are a little less favorable,” Mr. Ulrich predicted. “That ascent corridor is something my partners are going to be monitoring.”

If weather conditions along the ascent path worsen, the Crew-3 launch would be pushed to Thursday or Friday night.

Nov. 10, 2021, 4:08 p.m. ETNov. 10, 2021, 4:08 p.m. ET
From left, the astronauts Matthias Maurer, Tom Marshburn, Raja Chari and Kayla Barron on Tuesday.Credit…Joel Kowsky/NASA/EPA, via Shutterstock

Three of the four astronauts on Crew-3 are flying to space for the first time, which will put the total number of humans who have been to space over 600, according to data maintained by NASA.

Raja Chari, the mission’s commander, is 44 and will be the fifth astronaut of Indian descent to go to space — and officially the 599th human overall. Raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and educated in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was a test pilot and an Air Force colonel who flew combat missions in Iraq before joining NASA’s astronaut corps in 2017.

Matthias Maurer, Crew-3’s mission specialist, is a German astronaut representing the European Space Agency. Mr. Maurer, 51, joined the European astronaut corps in 2015 after roles as a paramedic, a materials scientist and an engineer. In 2016, he spent 16 days with a group of other astronauts and scientists aboard Aquarius, a research and training habitat for future space missions that sits 62 feet below the ocean’s surface near the Florida Keys.

Formally designated as Crew-3’s first mission specialist, Mr. Maurer will officially be the 600th person to ever reach space.

Kayla Barron, 34, also joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 2017. She graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering in 2010, and a year later received her master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Cambridge. She was among the first group of women to serve on a Navy submarine and was an officer aboard a ballistic missile submarine across three patrols.

Also a mission specialist, she will be the 601st human to reach space.

Ms. Barron and Mr. Chari are also members of NASA’s Artemis astronaut corps — a cadre of 18 astronauts who are eligible to travel to or around the moon as part of the agency’s multibillion-dollar program to build a lunar base and test out technologies for future missions to Mars.

Crew-3’s fourth astronaut is Tom Marshburn, 61, who will set off on his third trek to orbit since joining NASA’s astronaut corps in 2004. Mr. Marshburn has flown on two space vehicles in the past, serving as a crew member aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2009 and on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft in 2013.

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