The SpaceX Crew Dragon that will be used for NASA’s Crew-1 flight to the International Space Station has passed its final inspections and been certified for the launch scheduled for November 14.
“It’s just a tremendous day that is a culmination of a ton of work,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations.
The crew of four astronauts is already at Cape Canaveral. They have given the Crew Dragon that will be used for the flight the call sign of “Resilience” as an acknowledgment that 2020 has been a rough year for NASA and the United States, but the space agency managed to push through with positive progress on projects like the Perseverance rover. Perseverance was launched earlier this year and is already halfway through its journey to Mars.
“We felt like if the name of our vehicle could give a little hope, a little inspiration, put a smile on people’s face, then that is definitely what we wanted to do,” said crew commander Mike Hopkins at a virtual press conference.
The crew has been in quarantine since arriving at the Cape as a way to avoid being infected with illnesses like COVID-19. Pre-flight quarantines are a traditional part of preparations for each crewed launch from American soil dating back to the Space Race of the 1960s. These quarantines are believed to be a major factor in the notable lack of astronauts getting sick in space, though notable exceptions include Apollo 7 commander Wally Schirra catching a cold in space. (This reportedly put Schirra in a chronic bad mood during the flight besides leading to the accidental discovery that mucus does not drain from the nose as effectively in microgravity.)
NASA’s weather-watchers may have their eye on Tropical Storm Eta, which is currently moving over Florida. If the flight is delayed, it is most likely to be because Eta did not clear out by November 14.
So far, SpaceX is the only private company that has actually launched a crew into space. It launched the Demo-2 mission with Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley in May 2020 and brought them back down with a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico in August. Based on analysis of the hardware and data from the Demo-2 flight, SpaceX has made several improvements to the Crew Dragon.
Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA had to pay the Russian space program $90 million per seat for flights to the International Space Station. This arrangement has always been vulnerable to the possibility of international tensions. Russian President Vladimir Putin had previously snarked that American astronauts could “use a trampoline” to reach space, and more recent accusations of Russian interference in American elections could have caused further tensions that could have cost NASA its access to seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
President Trump has also ordered NASA to work on putting astronauts on the Moon by 2024 although observers have said that SpaceX is more likely to reach the Moon first with private paying passengers instead of NASA’s astronauts.
Due to these factors, NASA has prioritized its Commercial Crew program to rebuild its capacity to relaunch astronauts from American soil. The Crew-1 flight will be the first “operational” flight of the Commercial Crew program, with two more Crew Dragon flights scheduled over the next 14 months. SpaceX will also continue to use the uncrewed version of the Dragon spacecraft to make regular deliveries of supplies for the International Space Station as part of a separate contract with NASA.
SpaceX competitor Boeing is part of the Commercial Crew program, but is currently playing catch-up with its own crewed vehicle, the Starliner, which has suffered delays due to issues such as faulty software.
If successful, the Crew-1 astronauts, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, Soichi Noguchi, and crew commander Mike Hopkins, will spend the next six months on the International Space Station as part of 20 years’ worth of continuous crewed operations on the station.