Four astronauts take off for ISS in historic NASA-SpaceX mission: Everything you need to know about Crew-1

Four astronauts take off for ISS in historic NASA-SpaceX mission: Everything you need to know about Crew-1
NASA astronauts Shannon Walker (left to right), Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Four astronauts were launched to the International Space Station (ISS) on November 15 on the first operational commercial crew flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. The historic mission called Crew-1 has ushered in a new era for the space agency. The spacecraft is carrying NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, along with Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). 

The astronauts will begin a six-month science mission aboard the space station. What do we know so far about the mission that has kicked off regular commercial flights into orbit?

Why is this mission being dubbed as historic?

NASA has ordered six crew rotation missions to the International Space Station from SpaceX, Crew-1 being the first one. The Crew Dragon, including the Falcon 9 rocket and associated ground systems, is the first new, crew spacecraft to be NASA-certified for regular flights with astronauts since the space shuttle nearly 40 years ago.

Besides being NASA’s first full-fledged mission sending a crew into orbit aboard a privately-owned spacecraft, this is also considered the Dragon’s first fully operational mission. Therefore, the mission is called Crew-1. Henceforth, any missions that SpaceX flies on behalf of NASA will have ‘Crew’ names. Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket designed and manufactured by SpaceX for the reliable and safe transport of satellites and the Dragon spacecraft into orbit. 

The US was left without the ability to fly its own astronauts to and from the ISS after the Space Shuttle program retired in 2011. For years, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft was the vehicle keeping the space station staffed. With the Crew-1 mission on its way to the ISS, the US regains the ability to send astronauts on routine missions to space after 9 years. With NASA certification of the SpaceX crew transportation system complete, the agency can proceed with regularly flying astronauts to the space station, ending sole reliance on Russia for access.


“This mission has several firsts, including the first flight of the NASA-certified commercial system designed for crew transportation, which moves the system from development into regular flights; the first international crew of four to launch on an American commercial spacecraft; the first time the space station’s long-duration expedition crew size will increase from six to seven crew members, which will add to the crew time available for research; and the first time the Federal Aviation Administration has licensed a human orbital spaceflight launch,” states NASA. 


The Crew-1 astronauts named the spacecraft ‘Resilience,’ highlighting the dedication the teams involved with the mission have displayed and to demonstrate that when we work together, there is no limit to what we can achieve.” “They named it in honor of their families, colleagues, and fellow citizens,” describes NASA. 

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, with the four astronauts aboard the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, blasts off from NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

The November launch follows the Demo-2 test flight on May 30, in which SpaceX’s Crew Dragon first flew astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley. The extensive analysis of the test flight data followed the safe return of the astronauts on August 2. The May trip, however, was considered a ‘demonstration’ mission. NASA did not officially certify Crew Dragon as a “human-rated” spacecraft, meaning it has officially been deemed safe to carry people into space, until final reviews finished recently. 


“Years of design, development, and testing have culminated in NASA officially certifying the first commercial spacecraft system in history capable of transporting humans to and from the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program,” said NASA on November 11. 


What is commercial crew?

According to NASA, its Commercial Crew Program is working with the American aerospace industry as companies develop and operate a new generation of spacecraft and launch systems capable of carrying crews to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station. Commercial transportation to and from the station is expected to provide expanded utility, additional research time, and broader opportunities for discovery on the orbiting laboratory.

“The station is a critical testbed for NASA to understand and overcome the challenges of long-duration spaceflight. As commercial companies focus on providing human transportation services to and from low-Earth orbit, NASA is freed up to focus on building spacecraft and rockets for deep space missions,” explains the agency. It adds, “The program represents a revolutionary approach to government and commercial collaborations for the advancement of space exploration.”


What is Crew Dragon?

Crew Dragon is a fully autonomous spacecraft designed to deliver crew and critical cargo to orbiting destinations. It can be monitored and controlled by onboard astronauts and SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California. Dragon is composed of two main elements: the capsule, which is designed to carry crew and critical, pressurized cargo, and the trunk, which is an unpressurized service module. 

The spacecraft was designed with people in mind from the beginning. It is capable of carrying up to seven passengers but it will carry up to four astronauts for NASA missions and is designed for water landings. Its displays will provide real-time information on the state of the spacecraft’s capabilities — anything from the spacecraft’s position in space, to possible destinations, to the environment onboard.


What happened on November 15?

NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission lifted off at 7.27 pm EST on Sunday from Launch Complex 39A at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The spacecraft was launched atop the Falcon 9 rocket. The spacecraft will dock autonomously to the forward port of the station’s Harmony module about 11 pm on Monday, November 16.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard is seen as it is rolled out of the horizontal integration facility at Launch Complex 39A as preparations were on for the Crew-1 mission on November 9 (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

“NASA is delivering on its commitment to the American people and our international partners to provide safe, reliable, and cost-effective missions to the International Space Station using American private industry. This is an important mission for NASA, SpaceX, and our partners at JAXA, and we look forward to watching this crew arrive at the station to carry on our partnership for all of humanity,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. 


What are the mission’s objectives?

After docking, the Crew-1 astronauts will join NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, as well as Expedition 64 commander Sergey Ryzhikov and flight engineer Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, both of the Russian space agency Roscosmos. 

The crew is scheduled for a long-duration stay aboard the orbiting laboratory, conducting science and maintenance. The four astronauts are set to return in spring 2021. “It is scheduled to be the longest human space mission launched from the US. The Crew Dragon spacecraft is capable of staying in orbit for at least 210 days, as a NASA requirement,” says NASA.

Crew Dragon also is delivering over 500 pounds of cargo, new science hardware and experiments inside, including “food physiology,” a study of the effects of an optimized diet on crew health and, “genes in Space-7,” a student-designed experiment that aims to better understand how spaceflight affects brain function, enabling scientists to keep astronauts healthy as they prepare for long-duration missions in low-Earth orbit and beyond.

Among the science and research investigations the crew will support during its six-month mission, are a study using chips with tissue that mimics the structure and function of human organs to understand the role of microgravity on human health and diseases and translate those findings to improve human health on Earth, growing radishes in different types of light and soils as part of ongoing efforts to produce food in space, and testing a new system to remove heat from NASA’s next-generation spacesuit.

During their stay, Crew-1 astronauts expect to see a range of uncrewed spacecraft including the next generation of SpaceX cargo Dragon spacecraft, the Northrop Grumman Cygnus, and the Boeing CST-100 Starliner on its uncrewed flight test to the station. They also will conduct a variety of spacewalks and welcome crews of the Russian Soyuz vehicle and the next SpaceX Crew Dragon in 2021.

After the mission ends, the Crew-1 astronauts will board Crew Dragon, which will then autonomously undock, depart the space station, and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. “NASA and SpaceX are capable of supporting seven splashdown sites located off Florida’s east coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. Upon splashdown, the crew will be picked up by the SpaceX recovery ship and returned to shore,” explains the agency.


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 Four Astronauts Take Off ISS Historic NASA-SpaceX JAXA Mission Everything Need Know Crew-1