SpaceX aces fifth astronaut launch in a year and half

SpaceX has aced its fifth Crew Dragon astronaut launch in less than 18 months. (SpaceX/Richard Angle)

Less than 18 months after its first crewed launch, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket have successfully completed their fifth astronaut launch, sending a crew of four on their way to the International Space Station (ISS).

After ~10 days of weather and sequencing delays and two days after Crew-2 astronauts returned to Earth in a separate Dragon, once-flown Falcon 9 booster B1067 and new Crew Dragon capsule C210 (christened Endeavour) lifted off at 9:03pm EST on Wednesday, November 10th with four Crew-3 astronauts aboard.

For NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, and Kayla Barron, and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, the launch is just the beginning of a more than six-month stint in low Earth orbit. When they arrive at the ISS around 7pm EST, November 11th, they’ll join one other NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts – temporarily left for three days as a bit of a skeleton crew after Crew-2’s departure. Nominally, Crew-3 would have launched before Crew-2 to allow a true on-orbit hand-off with zero interruption, but poor weather ultimately led NASA to flip the order of operations at the last minute.

With just a few days to prepare, SpaceX and NASA managed to make that significant change happen and Crew-2 returned around 10pm EST on November 8th. Less than two days later, thanks to a near-perfect recovery, Crew-3 lifted off and is now in orbit and on the way to the ISS. SpaceX’s 24th launch of the year, Crew-3 is also its fifth astronaut launch since Demo-2, which saw the company launch its first crewed test flight – carrying two NASA astronauts – on May 30th, 2020.

Relative to other crewed spacecraft, completing the first five astronaut launches in less than a year and a half is no small feat. Crew Dragon is by no means the fastest to reach that five-flight milestone and is actually middle of the pack but a simple list of names and numbers belies the fact that every other spacecraft on that list was developed by a government agency with far more power over their budgets. Crew Dragon’s development, on the other hand, was funded and overseen by NASA but it was fully managed, designed, and built by private company SpaceX under a fixed-price contract.

SpacecraftTime to 5 Crewed Flights
Gemini267d | 8 months 22 days
Apollo CSM278d | 9 months 5 days
Soyuz 7K351d | 11 months 16 days
Soyuz MS386d | 12 months 21 days
Mercury516d | 16 months 28 days
Crew Dragon529d | 17 months 11 days
Soyuz TM571d | 18 months 24 days
Shuttle578d | 18 months 30 days
Soyuz TMA-M646d | 21 months 7 days
Soyuz TMA715d | 23 months 14 days
Soyuz T749d | 24 months 19 days
Vostok793d | 26 months 2 days
Shenzhou3542d | 116 months 11 days
Clean-sheet spacecraft are in bold, new versions of existing spacecraft are in italics

SpaceX is also on track to launch Axiom-1 (the first all-private astronaut mission to the ISS) and Crew-4 – Dragon’s sixth and seventh astronaut launches – before the second anniversary of Demo-2. Of those seven scheduled launches, four will have been completed for NASA in less than 18 months – a launch cadence the space agency never expected its Commercial Crew Program partners would need to support. However, partner Boeing has unfortunately mismanaged its Starliner spacecraft development, causing multiple in-flight anomalies and ultimately incurring years of delays. Originally scheduled to perform its equivalent of Dragon’s Demo-2 test flight (CFT) in 2020, Starliner’s first crewed launch is now highly unlikely to occur before 2023.

As a result, NASA has been forced to lean entirely on SpaceX and SpaceX has had to pick up the slack and rapidly learn how to operate Crew Dragon at twice its planned cadence. Thankfully, despite the fact that Crew Dragon will ultimately cost NASA ~40% and $2 billion less than Starliner, SpaceX has more than managed to rise to the challenge and ensure that NASA has had uninterrupted access to the ISS since November 2020. Crew-3 continues that uninterrupted access – a service that Crew Dragon and SpaceX alone are now likely to provide until at least early to mid-2023.

SpaceX aces fifth astronaut launch in a year and half
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