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SpaceX launched NASA astronauts for the first time on May 30th. Veteran Astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley travelled aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft on a voyage to the International Space Station (ISS). Dragon was propelled to orbit by a Falcon 9 rocket. The successful mission returned human spaceflight capabilities to the United States. The agency had not deployed astronauts from American soil since the Space Shuttle fleet was grounded in 2011.
SpaceX is currently the only company in the world capable of landing orbital-class rockets to reuse. Engineers developed a rocket recovery system to reuse some parts of the two-stage Falcon 9 rocket. Falcon 9's first-stage rocket booster is capable of launching payload into orbit and returning from space. The booster conducts controlled vertical landings on landing pads and on autonomous drone ships at sea.
NASA upgraded its Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract with SpaceX to allow the use of previously-flown Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon spacecraft on future crewed missions. A NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz told SpaceNews reporters:
“In this case, SpaceX has proposed to reuse future Falcon 9 and/or Crew Dragon systems or components for NASA missions to the International Space Station because they believe it will be beneficial from a safety and/or cost standpoint. NASA performed an in-depth review and determined that the terms of the overall contract modification were in the best interests of the government.”
SpaceX earned approval to reuse the Falcon 9 first-stage booster and Dragon spacecraft starting with the Post-Certification Mission (PCM).
PCM will be SpaceX's second operational flight for NASA and third astronaut deployment, referred to as Crew-2. This mission is expected to take place early next year after the first operational flight, Crew-1, which is scheduled for August this year. For the Crew-1 mission, SpaceX will launch four NASA astronauts to the ISS orbiting laboratory.
Reusing rockets significantly reduces the cost of spaceflight. SpaceX’s reusability goal is to re-fly a particular rocket booster 10 times, they are halfway towards reaching the target. A couple of Falcon 9 first-stage boosters have re-flown 5 times. To date, SpaceX has landed orbital-class rockets 54 times and 35 of those rockets have been reused.
Though, Schierholz stated NASA will not allow the reuse of rockets that are “flight leaders” for crewed flights – meaning the vehicles cannot be those that have flown too many times. She also said that the reuse of a Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon on any NASA mission will require a “delta-certification” conducted by the agency.
About the Author
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.