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NASA and SpaceX have set a specific date and time target for their historic first astronaut launch aboard a private spacecraft from U.S. soil, with a planned date of May 27 and a target liftoff time of 4:32 PM EDT (1:32 PM PDT) from Kennedy Space Center, at SpaceX’s Launch Complex 39A (LC-39). The mission had been previously announced too be tracking towards a mid- to late-May launch timeframe, but now we know exactly when the agency and SpaceX hope to launch astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley for this inaugural trip to the International Space Station.

The launch is the first crewed mission in NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which seeks to return American launch capabilities to U.S. soil through private partnerships, with both SpaceX and Boeing taking part and developing their own separate launch vehicles and crew craft. SpaceX has taken all the steps necessary to get to this stage ahead of Boeing, and this flight, called Demo-2, while still technically part of the test program, will see NASA’s astronauts visit the space station for “an extended stay,” with a full duration yet to be determined.

This final test will validate each aspect of the Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 launch system, including the pad from which the rocket takes off, the operational facilities on the ground, orbital systems and astronauts procedures. Pending successful completion of all those elements, Crew Dragon should be set for full operational certification, after which time it can begin regularly scheduled service of reliving astronauts to and from the ISS.

For the mission, Crew Dragon will launch with Behnken and Hurley, then enter orbit and rendezvous with the ISS, which should occur around 24 hours after liftoff. The spacecraft is designed to dock fully autonomously with the station (and has done so on a previous occasion during an uncrewed demo mission) and then Behnken and Hurley will disembark and join as members of the ISS crew, performing research on the orbital science platform.

The Crew Dragon flying this mission is designed to stay on orbit for around 110 days, but its actual length of stay will be decided by how ready the commercial crew mission to follow is at the time of launch. That Crew Dragon, which is the fully operational version, is designed for stays of at least 210 days, and the crew complement of four astronauts, including three from NASA and one from Japan’s space agency, is already determined. If all goes well, it’ll happen sometime later this year.

Crew Dragon from Demo-2 will perform an automated undocking from the ISS with Behnken and Hurley on board when it is ready to leave, and then they’ll re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and have a controlled splashdown landing in the Atlantic Ocean, where a SpaceX ship will pick them up and bring them back to Florida.

Obviously, NASA and SpaceX are facing challenges along with everyone else with the global COVID-19 crisis ongoing, but the agency has taken extra precautions to ensure this mission continues, since NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine notes that continued U.S. access to, and presence within the ISS is critical.


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That NASA intends to collect a sample from Mars and return it to Earth is well known — they’ve said so many times. But how would they go about scooping up soil from the surface of a distant planet and getting it back here? With a plan that sounds straight out of sci-fi.

Described by the project’s lead scientist in a virtual meeting reported by Nature, NASA and the European Space Agency’s proposed Mars sample retrieval program is perhaps the most ambitious interplanetary mission ever devised. (I’ve asked NASA for more details and will update this post if I hear back.)

The first part of the plan is already public: It relies on the Mars Perseverance rover, which is currently being prepared, despite the pandemic, for its launch in July. Perseverance will perform sampling using a drill and soil scoop, filling 30 small tubes with the results of its Martian delvings and storing them on board.

The next step is where things start to get wild.

A second spacecraft will travel to Mars, launching in 2026 and arriving in 2028, and land near Perseverance in Jezero crater. It will deploy a second rover, which will roll over to Perseverance, collect the sample tubes, and deposit them in the “Mars ascent vehicle” that also came with it. This small rocket will launch itself and the samples into orbit — the first time a spacecraft will have taken off from the surface of Mars.

At this point, a third spacecraft waiting nearby will synchronize its orbit with the sample retrieval craft, collect it, and return to Earth with it, where it will make its — controlled, one hopes — reentry in 2031.

“This is by no means a simple task,” said head of NASA’s Mars exploration program Jim Watzin in the meeting, uttering perhaps the greatest understatement of the 21st century so far. “But we have kept it as simple as possible.”

Indeed, it is hard to think of a simpler process given the restrictions of travel to Mars. Naturally Perseverance can’t shoot the samples back on a ballistic trajectory itself for a variety of reasons. That necessitates a second surface vehicle. And engineering that vehicle to fill the roles of outbound spacecraft, lander, rover, ascent vehicle, and return spacecraft may simply be impossible. So a third spacecraft is needed as well.

Keep in mind that this is the mission profile, but the actual spacecraft don’t exist yet, and likely won’t for years to come. Still, it’s a mind-blowing plan that NASA has just revealed.


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NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was at SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, California on Thursday, delivering an address alongside NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will launch aboard SpaceX’s commercial Crew Dragon capsule, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

Bridenstine kicked off  with some brief remarks about the importance and priority of the crew launch mission, which he said both he and Musk are in agreement that the commercial launch of American astronauts is “the highest priority” of the various projects both his agency and SpaceX have under development.

He and Musk then went into some detail about where the program is now, and what remains to be done to get to an actual crewed flight – the first of which will be a test flight. Bridenstine’s comments essentially took 2019 off the table for this to happen, with the Administrator saying he was “very confident that in the first part of next year, we will be able to launch American astronauts on American rockets,” and that if “everything goes according to plan,” it would take place in the first quarter of 2020.

Musk noted that in order for SpaceX to have confidence in its Crew Dragon launch system’s reliability for a crewed mission, they would have to have run 10 successful drop tests using the newly developed Mark 3 parachute system for the capsule occur “in a row.” Bridenstine said that based on the current schedule, SpaceX could run as many as 10 drop tests total using the Mark 3 system between now and the end of this year.

This new Mark 3 system features much stronger lines connecting the sheets of material used in their construction, Musk said, thanks to switching to a material called ‘xylon’ away from nylon, which is three or more times stronger per the CEO. The new version also uses a new stitching pattern compared to Mark 2 for additional strength.

Both Musk and Bridenstine were keen to point out that the timelines discussed, including the 2019 target for the crewed flight that SpaceX has been working towards until now, are “not deadlines,” but are instead a “best guess” in Musk’s words, based on the current state of affairs. Said state of affairs can change quickly, and Bridenstine added that “there are still things we could learn [in testing]” that could alter the timelines later than the first part of next year.

As for Crew Dragon product, Musk said that SpaceX is ramping to a cadence of producing a new capsule around once every three or four months, a rate it hopes to achieve in order to “get in a cadence of operational flights to the space station.”

Bridenstine also addressed the tweet he posted in late September regarding SpaceX’s Starship program update (posted in full below).

“As the NASA Administrator, I have been focused on returning to realism when it comes to costs and schedules,” he said. “And a lot of our programs that not been meeting costs and schedules. And this has been developing over time. And a lot of these programs are, you know, five years old, 10 years old […] so what we’re trying to do is get back to a day where we have realistic costs and schedules, and so I was signaling, and I haven’t done it just the SpaceX, but to all of our contractors that we need more realism built into the development timelines.”

Still, Bridentstine clarified that NASA definitely supports the Starship program as well, even if it’s prioritizing Crew Dragon at the current moment. “I want people to make no mistake: NASA has an interest in seeing starship be successful,” he said, while also pointing out NASA’s recent investment in Starship via its ‘Tipping Point’ project funding.


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NASA issues a new formal request for info from industry specifically around spacesuits. The agency is hoping to gather information in order to help it figure out a future path for acquisition of spacesuit production and services from external industry sources.

That doesn’t mean it’s outsourcing its spacesuit design and production immediately – NASA will build and certify its own spacesuits for use in the first Artemis missions, including Artemis III which is the one that’ll see the next American man and the first American woman take their trip to the lunar surface. But for Artemis missions after that, of which there are currently five more proposed (Artemis 4 through 8), four of which will have crew on board.

NASA has of course already worked with private industry, as well as academic institutions and researchers, on the technologies that will go into its own space suits. And the agency fully expects that the current exploration suit will form the basis of any future designs. It is however looking to fully transition their prouduction and testing to industry partners, and will additionally expect those partners to “facilitate the evolution of the suits” and also suggest improvements on the existing suit design.

On top of the suits, NASA is looking for input on tools and support hardware to be used with the suits, during extra-vehicular activities, or in making sure the suits work well with the vehicles that’ll be transporting them, as well as the lunar gateway that will act as the staging ground between Earth and the Moon’s surface.

Finally, NASA also would like to hear from companies about how to better commercialize spacesuits and spacewalks – making them available to customers outside of the agency itself, as well.

This isn’t surprising given how many signals NASA has been giving lately that it’s interesting in partnering with industry more deeply across both Artemis, future Mars exploration, and the ISS (and its potential commercial successor). The full RFI issued by NASA is available here, in case you’re interested in spinning up a spacesuit startup.


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NASA and SpaceX continue their joint preparations for the eventually astronaut crew missions that SpaceX will fly for the agency, with a test of the emergency evacuation procedure for SpaceX’s GO Searcher seaborne ship. The ship is intended to be used to recover spacecraft and astronauts in an actual mission scenario, and the rehearsals this week are a key part of ensuring mission readiness before an actual crewed SpaceX mission.

Photos from the dress rehearsal, which is the first coordinated end-to-end practice run involving the full NASA and SpaceX mission teams working in concert, saw NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken don SpaceX’s fancy new crew suits and mimic a situation where they needed to be removed from the returned Crew Dragon spacecraft and taken to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from the GO Searcher by helicopter.

By all accounts, this was a successful exercise and seems to have left parties on both sides happy with the results. Check out photos released by NASA of the dry run below.

SpaceX and NASA continue to work towards a goal of launching Crew Dragon’s first actual crewed flight this year, though they’ve encountered setbacks that make that potentially impossible, including the explosion of a Crew Dragon test vehicle during a static test fire in April.


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NASA has opened up a call for companies to join the ranks of its nine existing Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) providers, a group it chose in November after a similar solicitation for proposals. With the CLPS program, NASA is buying space aboard future commercial lunar landers to deliver to the surface of the Moon its future research, science and demonstration projects, and it’s looking for more providers to sign up as lunar lander providers. Contracts could prove out to $ 2.6 billion and extend through 2028.

The list of nine providers chosen in November 2018 includes Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and OrbitBeyond. NASA is looking to these companies, and any new firms added to the list as a result of this second call for submissions, to deliver both small and mid-size lunar landers, with the aim of delivering anything from rovers, to batteries, to payloads specific to future Artemis missions with the aim of helping establish a more permanent human presence on the Moon.

NASA’s goal in building out a stable of providers helps its Moon ambitions in a few different ways, including providing redundancy, and also offering a competitive field so they can open up bids for specific payloads and gain price advantages.

At the end of May, NASA announced the award of more than $ 250 million in contracts for specific payload delivery missions that were intended to take place by 2021. The three companies chosen from its list of nine providers were Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines and OrbitBeyond, although OrbitBeyond told the agency just yesterday that it would not be able to fulfill the contract awarded due to “internal corporate challenges,” and backed out of the contract with NASA’s permission.

Given how quickly one of their providers exited one of the few contracts already awarded, and the likely significant demand there will be for commercial lander services should NASA’s Artemis ambitions even match up somewhat closely to the vision, it’s probably a good idea for the agency to build out that stable of service providers.


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SpaceX has been awarded a new contract by NASA to launch the agency’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE. This research spacecraft will study polarized light from sources including neutron stars, pulsar wind nebulae and supermassive black holes, and provide much more imaging than existing space-based observation resources.

The mission will help scientists in the study of magnetars (a specific type of neutron star with especially powerful magnetic fields), black holes and “Pulsar Wind Nebulae,” which are nebula that are found within the remains of supernova.

SpaceX will launch this IXPE mission aboard a flight-proven Falcon 9, and the total cost for the contract is around $ 50.3 million. The launch will take place in April 2021 per current plans, taking off from LC-39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“SpaceX is honored that NASA continues to place its trust in our proven launch vehicles to deliver important science payloads to orbit,” said SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell in a statement. “IXPE will serve as SpaceX’s sixth contracted mission under NASA’s LSP, two of which were successfully launched in 2016 and 2018, increasing the agency’s scientific observational capabilities.”

This is just one of a number of upcoming launches SpaceX is contracted to perform for NASA, including the commercial resupply missions it regularly performs for the International Space Station.


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