The Crew-3 mission returned home after a six-month mission on the International Space Station on May 6, 2022. This marked the end of an unusually busy period for the space station that included a visit from the Axiom-1 mission that was extended to a total of 15 days due to poor weather at the landing site. The Crew-4 mission launched on the brand-new Crew Dragon spacecraft now bearing the name of “Freedom” on April 27, 2022, marking an overlap between the Crew-3 and Crew-4 missions during a routine handover period on the International Space Station.
The Crew-3 crew included NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn, and Kayla Barron and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer. The Crew Dragon “Endurance” splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico shortly after midnight on Friday morning.
“Thanks for letting us take Endurance on a shakedown cruise,” said Raja Chari.
The end of the Crew-3 mission marks four successful crewed flights for SpaceX’s Commercial Crew contract with NASA and SpaceX’s sixth crewed mission overall. Axiom-1 was the first privately organized crewed flight to the International Space Station as part of Axiom Space’s preparations to add inflatable modules to the station as early as 2024.
Inspiration4 conducted a completely separate civilian flight on one of SpaceX’s Crew Dragons as part of a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Inspiration4 organizer Jared Isaacman plans to continue his foray into space by commanding the Polaris Dawn mission, which could be the first to test SpaceX’s spacesuit model.
SpaceX’s busy week also included launching more Starlink satellites into orbit on April 29 and again on May 6 – the same day that Crew-3 returned. Starlink’s satellite Internet service notably gained attention when SpaceX sent terminals to Ukraine and did such a good job of beefing up Starlink’s ability to resist jamming that the U.S. Pentagon noticed.
SpaceX became the first aerospace company to launch crews to the International Space Station under NASA’s Commercial Crew program. Competitor Boeing is still working out some technical issues with the Starliner. It faced a near-disastrous maiden flight that led to NASA conducting a safety review and determining that Boeing had cut several corners while preparing for the flight. Since then, the Starliner faced a long series of technical problems that kept pushing back its second test flight. The most recent issue apparently involved a protective window cover falling off the Starliner while it was in transit to the launchpad.
Despite the issues, Boeing expects to “take turns” with SpaceX with launching astronauts to the space station when it gets Starliner up and running. NASA compensated for the delays in the Starliner by extending its Commercial Crew contract with SpaceX and transferring some astronauts from the Starliner to the Crew Dragon.
SpaceX shattered the Russian monopoly on crewed spaceflight that existed since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 and saves NASA millions of dollars per seat on the Crew Dragon compared to the Russian Soyuz. Russia has expressed its frustration during times of diplomatic tension by referring to American space efforts as “trampolines” and “broomsticks” – earning the occasional characteristically sharp retort from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.