SpaceX to launch astronaut crew in first operational mission

By Joey Roulette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Elon Musk’s SpaceX is poised to send a crew of four astronauts to the International Space Station on Saturday evening in NASA’s first operational mission using the Crew Dragon capsule.

The Crew Dragon capsule, named “Resilience” by its crew, is due to launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 7:49 p.m. ET on Saturday (0049 GMT on Sunday) from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida carrying three U.S. astronauts and one from Japan, Soichi Noguchi.

The roughly eight-hour flight to the station will be SpaceX’s first operational mission, as opposed to a test, after NASA officials this week signed off on Crew Dragon’s design, ending a nearly 10-year development phase for SpaceX under the agency’s public-private crew program.

“The history being made this time is we’re launching what we call an operational flight to the International Space Station,”  NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference at Kennedy Space Center.

Musk, who usually attends high-profile SpaceX missions in person at Kennedy Space Center, said Thursday that he took four coronavirus tests on the same day, with two returning negative and two producing positive results.

Bridenstine, asked on Friday if Musk will be in the launch control room for liftoff on Saturday, said agency policy requires employees to quarantine and self-isolate after testing positive for the disease, “so we anticipate that that will be taking place.”

Whether Musk came into contact with the astronauts was unclear, but unlikely since the crew has been in routine quarantine for weeks prior to their flight on Saturday.

NASA contracted SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to develop competing space capsules aimed at replacing its shuttle program that ended in 2011 and weaning off dependence on Russian rockets to send U.S. astronauts to space.

SpaceX’s final test of its capsule came in August, after the company launched and returned the first astronauts from U.S. soil on a trip to the ISS in nearly a decade. Boeing’s first crewed test mission with its Starliner capsule is planned for late next year.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; editing by Bill Tarrant and Diane Craft)

One American, two Russians blast off to International Space Station

By Joey Roulette and Olzhas Auyezov

WASHINGTON/ALMATY (Reuters) – A Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying a U.S. astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday and successfully reached orbit, live footage broadcast by Russia’s space agency Roscosmos showed.

The crew members traveling to the International Space Station (ISS) are Kate Rubins, a NASA microbiologist who in 2016 became the first person to sequence DNA in space, and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov.

The mission is the last scheduled Russian flight carrying a U.S. crew member.

Since the space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA has relied on Russia to ferry its astronauts to the space station, an orbiting laboratory 250 miles above Earth that has housed international crews of astronauts continuously for nearly 20 years.

The U.S. space agency in 2014 contracted Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing Co. to build competing space capsules in an effort to reclaim NASA’s launch independence.

The $8 billion program enabled SpaceX’s first manned trip to the space station in May, marking the first from home soil in nearly a decade.

NASA has purchased additional crew seats from Russia as its public-private crew program faced delays, with Rubins’ mission being the most recent.

The U.S. is scheduled to begin operational missions on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.

“We have an incredible partnership,” Rubins said in an interview from Russia’s Star City before her flight. “We’ll continue to train crews over here and we’re going to have cosmonauts come to the Johnson Space Center and train.”

NASA and Roscosmos have committed to continue the flight-sharing partnership and are in talks to fly Russian astronauts on U.S. vehicles and to fly U.S. astronauts on Russian rockets when needed, a spokesperson for Roscosmos told Reuters.

“Of course, mutual flights are of interest for ISS reliability and continuous operations,” the spokesperson said. “This approach (mixed crew flights) will ensure delivery of the crew to the station, should a problem with the partner spacecraft occur.”

(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Moscow; Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Leslie Adler and Andrew Osborn)

Boeing’s first Starliner crewed mission tentatively slated for 2021

By Eric M. Johnson

SEATTLE (Reuters) – Boeing Co said on Tuesday it aims to redo its unmanned Starliner crew capsule flight test to the International Space Station (ISS) in December or January, depending on when it completes software and test hardware production development.

If the test mission is successful, Boeing and NASA will fly Starliner’s first crewed mission in summer 2021, with a post-certification mission roughly scheduled for the following winter, the company added.

Boeing is eager for another shot at proving its crew capsule after technical failures put the aerospace juggernaut behind Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX, which successfully returned its rival crew capsule from the ISS earlier this month.

During Boeing’s first uncrewed test, in December 2019, a series of software glitches and an issue with the spacecraft’s automated timer resulted in Starliner failing to dock at the space station and returning to Earth a week early.

In February, a NASA safety review panel found Boeing had narrowly missed a “catastrophic failure” in the botched test, and recommended examining the company’s software verification process before letting it fly humans to space.

Earlier this month, Boeing watched from the sidelines as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico after a two-month voyage to the International Space Station – NASA’s first crewed mission from home soil in nine years.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Richard Chang)

NASA sets launch date for SpaceX U.S. manned mission to space station

By Joey Roulette

(Reuters) – NASA on Friday set a launch date of May 27 for its first astronaut mission from U.S. soil in nearly ten years.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted that billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s space company, SpaceX, will send two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station aboard its Falcon 9 rocket from Florida – marking the company’s first mission carrying humans aboard.

“BREAKING: On May 27, @NASA will once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil!” Bridenstine wrote on Twitter.

The U.S. space agency had previously said the mission, in which NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, 48, and Doug Hurley, 52 will ride SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to the space station, would launch sometime in May.

As with most high-profile missions, the new date could slip. If all goes as planned, the mission would mark the first time NASA launches its astronauts from U.S. soil since the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle.

The space agency has since relied on Russia’s space program to ferry astronauts to the space station.

A decade in the making, next month’s mission is the final test for Crew Dragon before regularly flying humans for NASA under its Commercial Crew Program, a public-private initiative. Boeing Co is developing its competing Starliner astronaut taxi as the agency’s second ride to space.

The agency is mulling whether to extend Behnken and Hurley’s stay aboard the space station from a week as originally planned to up to six months in order to ensure U.S. astronauts are staffed on the station continuously.

Timelines for the crew program have been pushed back by years, with the first crew launch originally slated for early 2017.

The development delays with Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner have forced NASA to buy more crew seats from Russia’s space agency, an increasingly costly expense as Moscow scales its own Soyuz program back to just two missions a year.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Bill Berkrot)

Space crew survives plunge to Earth after Russian rocket fails

The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft carrying the crew of astronaut Nick Hague of the U.S. and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin of Russia blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

By Shamil Zhumatov

BAIKONUR COSMODROME, Kazakhstan (Reuters) – The two-man U.S.-Russian crew of a Soyuz spacecraft en route to the International Space Station was forced to make a dramatic emergency landing in Kazakhstan on Thursday when their rocket failed in mid-air.

U.S. astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin landed safely without harm and rescue crews who raced to locate them on the Kazakh steppe quickly linked up with them, NASA, the U.S. space agency, and Russia’s Roscosmos said.

It was the first serious launch problem experienced by a manned Soyuz space mission since 1983 when a fire broke out at the base of the booster rocket while the crew was preparing for lift-off. The crew narrowly escaped before a large explosion.

Thursday’s problem occurred when the first and second stages of a booster rocket, launched from the Soviet-era cosmodrome of Baikonur in the central Asian country, were separating, triggering emergency systems soon after launch.

The Soyuz capsule carrying the two men then separated from the malfunctioning rocket and made what NASA called a steep ballistic descent to Earth with parachutes helping slow its speed. A cloud of sand billowed up as the capsule came down on the desert steppe.

Rescue crews then raced to the scene to retrieve them with reports of paratroopers parachuting to their landing spot.

The failure is a setback for the Russian space program and the latest in a string of mishaps.

Moscow immediately suspended all manned space launches, the RIA news agency reported, while Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin said he had ordered a state commission to be set up to investigate what had gone wrong.

Unnamed Russian space industry sources cited by news agencies said it would be hard to establish what had caused the incident because the booster rocket segments involved had been badly damaged in their fall.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator who was in Kazakhstan to witness the launch, said in a statement that the failure had been caused by an anomaly with the rocket’s booster.

“A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted,” he said, saying the safety of the crew was the utmost priority for NASA.

Photographs released by Roscosmos after the rescue showed the two astronauts smiling and relaxing on sofas at a town near their landing site as they underwent blood pressure and cardiac tests.

Footage from inside the Soyuz had shown the two men being shaken around at the moment the failure occurred, with their arms and legs flailing.

Ovchinin, the Russian cosmonaut, can be heard saying: “That was a quick flight.”

International Space Station (ISS) crew members astronaut Nick Hague of the U.S. and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin of Russia board the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft for the launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan October 11, 2018. Yuri Kochetkov/Pool via REUTERS

International Space Station (ISS) crew members astronaut Nick Hague of the U.S. and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin of Russia board the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft for the launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan October 11, 2018. Yuri Kochetkov/Pool via REUTERS

U.S. SPACE PLANS

For now, the United States relies on Moscow to carry its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) which was launched 20 years ago. NASA tentatively plans to send its first crew to the ISS using a SpaceX craft instead of a Soyuz next April.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the most important thing was that the two men were alive.

The ISS, launched in 1998, is a habitable artificial satellite in low Earth orbit which is used to carry out scientific and space-related tests.

It can hold a crew of up to six people and at present has three people aboard, two men — a German and a Russian – as well as one female U.S. astronaut.

“Rescue services have been working since the first second of the accident,” Rogozin wrote on Twitter. “The emergency rescue systems of the MS-Soyuz spacecraft worked smoothly. The crew has been saved.”

A Russian space industry source was cited by the Interfax news agency as saying that there was enough food onboard the ISS to last until April of next year.

The next re-supply run was meant to happen on Oct. 31, the source was quoted as saying, but that was now in doubt since the Progress supply ship was propelled by the same kind of rocket used in Thursday’s incident.

Questions are now likely to be asked about how efficiently Russia’s space program is running.

In August, a hole appeared in a Soyuz capsule already docked to the ISS which caused a brief loss of air pressure and had to be patched. Rogozin has said it could have been “sabotage”.

And in November last year, Roscosmos lost contact with a newly-launched weather satellite – the Meteor-M – after it blasted off from Russia’s new Vostochny cosmodrome in the Far East.

Rogozin said at the time that the launch of the 2.6 billion-rouble ($39.02 million) satellite had been due to an embarrassing programming error.

($1 = 66.6315 roubles)

(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov in Kazakhstan and by Christian Lowe, Tom Balmforth, Polina Nikolskaya, Polina Ivanova, Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

NASA names astronauts for first manned U.S. space launches since 2011

The astronauts assigned to crew the first flight tests and missions of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon acknowledge the media upon introduction at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 3, 2018. The astronauts are (L to R): Victor Glover, Robert Behnken, Michael Hopkins, Douglas Hurley, Eric Boe, Sunita Williams, Christopher Ferguson, Josh Cassada, and Nicole Mann. REUTERS/Richard Carson

By Joey Roulette

(Reuters) – NASA on Friday named nine astronauts for the first manned space launches from U.S. soil since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s announcement signals a milestone in the U.S. space program, with its shift to the private sector for ferrying cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.

Since the space shuttle program was shut down, the U.S. space agency NASA has had to rely on Russia to fly astronauts to space station, a $100 billion orbital research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (402 km) above Earth.

The astronauts named on Friday will be carried aloft aboard spacecraft developed by entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing Co, crewing first the test flights, and then missions involving both Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

The first flight is expected sometime next year.

“Space has transformed the American way of life,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “For the first time since 2011, we are on the brink of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”

The commercial crew program will allow expanded use of the space station. NASA officials have said it is critical to understanding the challenges of long-duration spaceflight and necessary for a sustainable presence on the Moon and for deep-space missions, including to Mars.

In 2014, SpaceX and Boeing received contracts for $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion, respectively, to develop so-called space taxis that can ferry astronauts to and from the space station.

Of the nine astronauts tapped to serve as crew members, all but three are space flight veterans. Additional crew members will be assigned by NASA’s international partners in the space station at a later date, the agency said.

The Government Accountability Office said last month that launch plans could be delayed due to incomplete safety measures and accountability issues in NASA’s commercial crew program.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Orlando, Florida; Editing by Tom Brown)

NASA to set fire in space for science, safety

The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft departs the International Space Station

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – An unmanned cargo ship pulled away from the International Space Station on Tuesday to stage the first of three planned NASA experiments on how big fires grow in space, an important test for astronaut safety.

Previous experiments in space were limited to the incineration of samples no bigger than an index card, said David Urban, lead researcher for the Spacecraft Fire Experiment, or Saffire.

“We tried for years to find a vehicle and a circumstance where this would work and initially we’d get a ‘not on my spacecraft’ reaction,” Urban said during a NASA TV interview.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration ultimately settled on using an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ship, which is designed to burn up in the atmosphere after it departs the space station.

The Cygnus, which departed the space station on Tuesday, was launched from Earth in March with more than 7,000 pounds (3,200 kg) of food, supplies and science experiments for the station, a research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above the planet.

The cargo included Saffire, a module containing a 38-inch by 19-inch (97 cm by 49 cm) cotton-and-fiberglass material sample that will be set on fire after Cygnus reaches a safe distance from the station.

The experiment will begin with hot wires igniting the sample. Air flowing through ducts will fan the fire, which is expected to last about 20 minutes.

“One of the big questions is how big will the flame get?” Urban said.

Fire behaves differently outside of Earth’s atmosphere, so scientists want to test whether microgravity will limit flames and what materials will burn.

The question is not academic. In February 1997, an oxygen-generating canister aboard the Russian Mir space station erupted into a searing flame, blocking the crew’s path to an emergency escape ship.

The crew fought the fire with foam extinguishers and water and it eventually burned itself out, leaving a thick residue of soot.

The Saffire experiment will be the largest fire set in space since the accidental blaze on Mir.

Onboard sensors will record temperature, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, while two cameras snap pictures. The data and images will be relayed to ground control teams over the next four to six days. NASA plans two more Saffire experiments aboard future Cygnus spacecraft.

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Steve Orlofsky)