Featured Image Source: NASA
NASA has been highly dependent on booking Russian spacecraft for almost a decade. Ever since the Space Shuttle fleet was grounded in 2011, the United States has not conducted manned flights to space. Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, a final Russian Soyuz rocket launched a NASA Astronaut for the last time to the International Space Station (ISS). On April 9, the Soyuz-2.1 rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Russia, at 4:05 a.m. Eastern time. Then the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft was deployed into orbit about 9 minutes later. After a 6-hour trip, the spacecraft docked to the orbiting laboratory. Onboard the Soyuz spacecraft were American Astronaut Chris Cassidy, and Russian Cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. They all makeup Expedition 63, the crew will stay at the orbiting laboratory for 6 months. Due to the coronavirus, staff during the launch was limited in order to avoid spreading the COVID-19 respiratory illness. Governments from across the world have issued ‘stay at home’ orders to avoid straining healthcare systems. NASA and Roscosmos took extra precautions by limiting contact with Astronauts so they would not take any illnesses to ISS. “I knew I was going to be in quarantine these two weeks, but what’s really different is everybody else around us is in quarantine, too,” Cassidy said in a prelaunch interview on NASA TV. “It’ll be a really, really skeletal crew in the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which will be quite different.”
After the successful Soyuz launch, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stated:
“Chris Cassidy, Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner are safely in orbit. No virus is stronger than the human desire to explore. I’m grateful to the entire NASA and Roscosmos teams for their dedication to making this launch a success.”
Chris Cassidy, Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner are safely in orbit. No virus is stronger than the human desire to explore. I’m grateful to the entire @NASA and @roscosmos teams for their dedication to making this launch a success. https://t.co/LX36JhD5Fp— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) April 9, 2020
This is the final time NASA will book Russian launch services to send astronauts to the space station. Russia’s Soyuz costs $86 million per seat. In total, 38 Americans have flown on 35 launches. That’s a total cost of over $3 billion. NASA started funding American spacecraft development under the Commercial Crew Program. SpaceX and Boeing have been awarded funding from the agency: $3.1 billion for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft development, and $4.8 billion for Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. A seat aboard Dragon is $55 million, and $70 million for Starliner. SpaceX and Boeing will return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States of America, at a significantly lower cost. SpaceX is scheduled to conduct its first crewed mission to the space station in May this year. NASA Astronauts Bob Behnken and Dough Hurley will conduct the first mission (Demo-2) aboard SpaceX’s upgraded Dragon spacecraft. Crew Dragon will launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA shared a photograph of SpaceX’s rocket with Dragon, standing vertical at historic Launch Pad 39A -the same launch pad from where Apollo missions to the moon were launched from.
SpaceX demonstrated its upgraded Dragon spacecraft is capable of reliably transporting astronauts to the space station. Last year, the company conducted an uncrewed demonstration mission to ISS, Demo-1. Dragon docked autonomously to the station’s module, it became the first American spacecraft in history to operate with full automation. In January, SpaceX demonstrated Crew Dragon’s launch escape capabilities during an In-Flight Abort test. During the test, a Falcon 9 rocket was programmed to shut down its engines to simulate a rocket malfunction, Dragon automatically ignited its integrated SuperDraco engines to escape danger. The spacecraft conducted a parachute-assisted landing into the ocean, demonstrating its capability of saving astronaut’s lives in the event of an emergency while in-flight.
Next month, will be very exciting for NASA and SpaceX as they prepare to conduct the first crewed flight launched from American soil in nearly a decade.
SpaceX’s competitor, Boeing is hoping to launch its Starliner spacecraft soon. It is unclear when that would be, due to a failed test flight to the station that will have to be performed again to ensure Starliner is capable of conducting a safe mission.