SpaceX’s third NASA astronaut launch to reuse Crew Dragon and Falcon 9

The next new Falcon 9 SpaceX launches could become the first orbital-class liquid rocket in history to fly astronauts twice. (SpaceX)

NASA has revealed that SpaceX could reuse the next Falcon 9 booster and first Crew Dragon spacecraft scheduled to launch astronauts as soon as SpaceX’s third astronaut launch, scheduled for early 2021.

First, though, SpaceX must successfully return two NASA astronauts to Earth just a few days from now and launch another four astronauts – three NASA and one Japanese (JAXA) – to the International Space Station (ISS) just ~8 weeks later. Astronauts Bob Behnken are currently occupying the ISS as part of Crew Dragon’s inaugural crewed launch, which has been a near-flawless success up to this point. Those astronauts are scheduled to board the orbiting spacecraft and depart the ISS on August 1st and reenter Earth’s atmosphere roughly one day later on August 2nd.

It will be Crew Dragon’s second orbital reentry but also its first with astronauts aboard. If Crew Dragon performs as designed and capsule C206 is recovered without issue, SpaceX and NASA will debrief all teams involved, inspect the spacecraft and astronaut spacesuits, and hopefully certify the spacecraft for operational crewed launches.

Falcon 9 B1061, the booster NASA refers to above, arrived in Florida on July 14th ahead of SpaceX’s second astronaut launch ever. (SpaceX)

Mentioned above, the first of those operational astronaut launches will be known as Crew-1 or Post-Certification Mission 1 (PCM-1) and is currently expected to launch no earlier than (NET) late September. Crew-1’s launch date is almost entirely contingent upon the successful completion of Demo-2 and NASA’s subsequent certification of Crew Dragon. SpaceX is in the process of delivering all the rocket and spacecraft hardware needed for Crew-1 from its Hawthorne, California factory to launch and processing facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida and Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

Believed to be capsule C207, the Crew Dragon spacecraft pictured here in May 2020 is assigned to Crew-1. (SpaceX)
The Demo-2 Crew Dragon spacecraft arrived in Florida roughly 3.5 months before launch.(SpaceX)

New Falcon 9 booster B1061 completed a suite of acceptance tests at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas development facilities between April and June 2020 and ultimately shipped from Texas to Florida on July 11th, arriving on July 14th. A new Falcon 9 upper stage is likely close behind the booster and SpaceX will be able to begin integrated processing, culminating in a preflight wet dress rehearsal (WDR) and static fire a few weeks prior to launch.

An expendable trunk and the new Crew Dragon capsule assigned to Crew-1 – believed to be capsule C207 – could arrive at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) processing facilities any day now. Prior to heading to Florida, the spacecraft must complete numerous acceptance tests, including hardware-in-the-loop launch simulations, the static fire of all four SuperDraco abort thruster modules and Draco maneuvering pods, a from of WDR, and more. After arriving, SpaceX will inspect every part of the spacecraft, complete any final outfitting needed, load the capsule with monomethylhydrazine (MMH) fuel and dinitrogen tetroxide (NTO) oxidizer, and install its trunk section.

Crew Dragon C206 was installed on its trunk by May 1st, one month prior to launch. (SpaceX)
Crew Dragon C206 was photographed in orbit by one of the astronauts that piloted it during a July 1st spacewalk. (NASA)

If Demo-2 Crew Dragon capsule C206 is able to safely return astronauts Behnken and Hurley to Earth and make it back to dry land in one piece, it could become the first American space capsule in history to launch astronauts into orbit twice. The same goes for Crew-1 Falcon 9 booster B1061: if it successfully launches and lands as part of SpaceX’s operational astronaut launch debut, it will be refurbished to become the first liquid rocket booster in the world to support two astronaut launches when it flies again on Crew-2.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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