SpaceX and NASA, fresh from the success of their first crewed mission, are sending more astronauts into space together — and they're planning to launch three missions in the next 12 months.
The private space-faring company, whose CEO Elon Musk has spoken before about his goal to build a city on Mars, became the first firm to send humans into space as part of NASA's Commercial Crew program. This initiative is aimed at getting private companies to develop a capsule that can send NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.
The program resolved a major issue with NASA's crewed spaceflights. Since the shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA had to rent seats on Russian Soyuz rockets from Roscosmos. The missions cost around $80 million per seat, and launch over 7,000 miles from Houston at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
In 2014, NASA announced it would partner with both SpaceX and Boeing to bring these flights a little closer to home. It wasn't an easy task — the day before Musk unveiled the prototype of the ambitious Mars-bound Starship, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine pointedly declared on Twitter that the Commercial Crew program was "years behind schedule."
On May 30, 2020 SpaceX became the first of the two firms to send NASA astronauts into space. Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley flew on the "Demo-2" mission, returning to Earth on August 3. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said on the day of return that it was "an extraordinary mission, an extraordinary day for NASA, for SpaceX, and frankly, for Americans and anyone interested in spaceflight."
Fresh from the success of the first mission, NASA and SpaceX are planning a series of subsequent flights. Here's what to expect next.
October 31, 2020: Crew-1 mission — On September 29, NASA's human spaceflight program head Kathy Lueders shared via Twitter that the first non-test flight is planned to lift off on October 31 at 2:40 a.m. Eastern. As with any other launch, delays are possible. The mission will lift off with a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The mission will send up four astronauts, one of which will be the first non-NASA astronaut to fly on Crew Dragon:
- Shannon Walker, a Texas native who became a NASA astronaut in 2004.
- Michael Hopkins, a Missouri native who became a NASA astronaut in 2009.
- Victor Glover, Jr., a California native who became a NASA astronaut in 2013.
- Soichi Noguchi, an astronaut with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA. Noguchi is a Kanagawa native selected to be an astronaut in 1996 by JAXA's predecessor agency, NASDA.
After the launch, SpaceX plans to send up a scheduled cargo Dragon capsule. This means there will be two Dragon capsules attached to the International Space Station for the first time.
March 30, 2021: Crew-2 mission — This mission will send up four astronauts, including the first from the European Space Agency:
- NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, born in Killeen, Texas.
- NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, born in Honolulu, Hawaii.
- European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, born in Rouen in France.
- Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, born in Tokyo.
NASA has publicly stated this mission will take place in spring 2021, while SpaceflightNow lists a tentative launch date of March 30.
September 2021: Crew-3 mission — Little is known about this mission. Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs for SpaceX, declared during a SpaceNews-attended conference that Crew-3 would take place later in 2021.
Michal Vaclavik, Czech representative at the European Space Agency, later confirmed via Twitter the mission is currently scheduled for September 2021. The mission will send up ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, born in Sankt Wendel in Germany. Further details about the mission, including other crew members, have yet to be released.
Following these three missions, Crew Dragon is expected to take on a variety of unique tasks – including sending up Tom Cruise for the first feature film to be shot in space. "Demo-2" was just the beginning.