MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – NASA has reassigned two astronauts from Boeing’s commercial crew missions to one SpaceX as the agency addresses delays in development of the CST-100 Starliner and is working on a seat swap agreement with Russia.
NASA announced October 6 that astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada will be the commander and pilot, respectively, for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon-5 mission, which will be launched to the International Space Station no later than the fall of 2022. The other two people will announce those task later.
MAN was previously part of the three-man Flight Crew Test (CFT) mission, the first manned flight of the Starliner. Cassada was part of Starliner-1, the first operational Starliner mission that will follow the CFT mission. Neither CFT nor Starliner-1 has confirmed launch dates due to ongoing delays on Starliner’s second uncrewed mission, Orbital Flight Test 2. First reported by Ars Technica on October 5which at the time had not expected an official announcement for weeks or months.
In a prescheduled briefing on the upcoming SpaceX Crew-3 mission on October 6, NASA officials said they reassigned Cassada and MAN because they wanted to give rookie astronauts a flight experience sooner rather than later. “To us, it seemed like the right time,” said Steve Stitch, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager. “We really wanted to get some experience with Nicole and Josh and get them into space as quickly as possible.”
NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Mike Fink remained mission assignments for CFT and Sonny Williams on Starliner-1. The three are veteran astronauts, and NASA said other astronauts will be added to those missions in the future.
Janet Epps also stayed on Starliner-1, another rookie astronaut who was removed from the Soyuz mission to the International Space Station in 2018 for reasons the agency declined to disclose at the time. “We are reevaluating the mission of the flight,” Stitch said. “Because Starliner-1 is a little further from the CFT, we’re looking at that mission and see if that changes over time.”
NASA hopes one of the two open seats on Crew-5 will be filled by a Russian cosmonaut. The agency continues discussions with the Russian space agency Roscosmos over a seat swap agreement to allow NASA and other Western astronauts to fly aboard the Soyuz spacecraft in exchange for Russian cosmonauts traveling on commercial crew vehicles. Such “hybrid crews” will ensure that both astronauts and cosmonauts are on the station if there is a problem with the Soyuz, Crew Dragon or Starliner spacecraft.
“We have been working with our Russian partners on what we call a ‘crew exchange’ strategy,” Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said at the press conference. of agreements between governments together to support that.”
Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager, said he met with Roscosmos officials last week in Moscow about the agreement. “Our goal is still to be Crew-5 in the fall of ’22, to have an astronaut on that craft, and to have an American aboard a Soyuz in the same time frame,” he said.
That would rule out driving an astronaut aboard the Crew-4, which will launch in the spring of 2022. NASA has left one of the four seats on that mission open in case an agreement can be reached in time. Stich said a reserve member of the Crew-4 crew will be assigned to take that seat “in due course.”
Three Russian cosmonauts will be on board the next Soyuz crew rotation mission, which will launch in the spring of 2022. Montalbano said that NASA has no plans to get a seat on that flight, as it did early this year when it struck an agreement through a third party, Axiom Space, to buy the seat and fly NASA astronaut Mark Vande as he is in place of a Russian cosmonaut. Montalbano said the delivery between the Crew-3 and Crew-4 missions would be timed “so that we maintain an American presence on board.”
Crew Dragon Updates
The briefing was primarily on the Crew-3 mission, which launched on October 30 and sent to ISS astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn, Kayla Barron, and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer.
It will be the first flight of a new spacecraft Crew Dragon, and the third in the SpaceX fleet. SpaceX has made minor changes to this craft based on experience from previous flights, including the Crew-1 mission where debris, while returning to Earth, caused minor damage to one of the rotating parachutes.
Stich said the problem was with a “small bushing” on the dope meant to protect the rising lines on the canopy from abrasion. “We actually fixed that to improve some stitching on that little sleeve,” he said.
Another problem with the spacecraft’s waste management system is that the small junction can be “a bit loose,” said Sarah Walker, Dragon mission management director at SpaceX. “We just started doing an improvement to make this joint a little narrower.”
SpaceX is also sharing NASA data it collected on the Inspiration4 Special Crew Dragon mission in September. Stitch said the mission is important because it flew higher than the one that reached the International Space Station, exposing the spacecraft to a greater amount of microparticles and orbital debris. The three-day flight also provided a more robust test of the spacecraft’s life support system.
In addition to the new Crew Dragon for the Crew-3 mission, SpaceX is building a fourth Crew Dragon that Walker said should be ready in the spring of 2022, possibly for the Crew-4 mission. She added that there are no plans to build more Crew Dragon capsules at this time. “The four Crew Dragon cars seem enough to meet our statement, which is booming.”