SpaceX Dragon capsule to be 5-person 'lifeboat' in event of ISS emergency

The Crew-5 SpaceX Dragon Endurance approaches the International Space Station for docking on Oct. 6, 2022.
The Crew-5 SpaceX Dragon Endurance approaches the International Space Station for docking on Oct. 6, 2022. (Image credit: NASA TV)

A SpaceX Dragon capsule is being modified on orbit to carry an extra astronaut home to Earth if need be.

On Wednesday (Jan. 18), NASA plans to start moving agency astronaut Frank Rubio's seat liner from a Russian Soyuz spacecraft over to Endurance, the Dragon spacecraft that's flying SpaceX's ongoing Crew-5 mission for NASA.

Both vehicles are docked to the International Space Station (ISS). The Soyuz, known as MS-22, lost its coolant last month after suffering an apparent micrometeoroid or debris strike and has been deemed unfit to return astronauts to Earth except in case of emergency. Russia plans to launch an uncrewed Soyuz to the orbiting lab on Feb. 20 to bring the MS-22 crew — Rubio and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin — back down to Earth.

Related: Hole in leaky Soyuz spacecraft not caused by Geminid meteor

MS-22 could still be pressed into service as a lifeboat if something bad happens to the ISS before the next Soyuz's arrival, however. And that's where the seat-liner move comes in: It's safer for MS-22 to carry just two astronauts down instead of three, given its hobbled state.

"The change allows for increased crew protection by reducing the heat load inside the MS-22 spacecraft for cosmonauts Prokopyev and Petelin in the event of an emergency return to Earth," NASA officials wrote in an update on Friday (Jan. 13).

Endurance launched in October 2022 with just four seats installed, because Crew-5 consists of four astronauts — NASA's Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, Japanese spaceflyer Koichi Wakata and Russia's Anna Kikina. But Dragon capsules are designed to carry up to seven people, so Endurance has the space to accommodate Rubio as well if need be.

MS-22 launched to the ISS in September for a planned six-month mission. But Rubio, Prokopyev and Petelin will likely end up staying in orbit for twice that long.

"The plan is for Frank and Dimitri and Sergey to stay on board for several more months until they come home, probably [in] late September," Dina Contella, NASA's ISS operations integration manager, said during a press conference on Tuesday (Jan. 17). 

"We're looking at the exact timing of that, but at this point, that would be when the vehicle would be planned to come home," she said.

The mission extension for the MS-22 crew is explained by the fact that the next Soyuz will launch uncrewed to bring them home. If Rubio, Prokopyev and Petelin returned to Earth in March on this new vehicle, the ISS would be understaffed until a crewed Soyuz could be readied for liftoff. 

SpaceX's Crew-6 mission is set to launch next month, carrying four more astronauts to the ISS. But Crew-5 will return to Earth a few days after the newcomers come aboard.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.  

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.

  • B5Wars
    Crew Dragon only has 4 seats per SpaceX, as the requirements changed during development.

    "After SpaceX had already designed the interior layout of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, NASA decided to change the specification for the angle of the ship’s seats due to concerns about the g-forces crew members might experience during splashdown.
    The change meant SpaceX had to do away with the company’s original seven-seat design for the Crew Dragon.
    'With this change and the angle of the seats, we could not get seven anymore,' Shotwell said. 'So now we only have four seats. That was kind of a big change for us.'" - Dec 2019 Space Flight Now article with SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell
  • TomMariner
    Wait, isn't SpaceX owned by Elon Musk who is under attack by our government for sending a Tweet saying that the short sellers of Tesla were jerks?
  • B5Wars
    TomMariner said:
    Wait, isn't SpaceX owned by Elon Musk who is under attack by our government for sending a Tweet saying that the short sellers of Tesla were jerks?

    What does that have to do with how many seats a Dragon capsule can fit? NASA is moving Frank Rubio's seat liner as a precaution vs a catastrophic event that requires evacuation. It is not a normal procedure, but something of an emergency measure. The plan is to move his seat liner back to MS-23 when it arrives next month.

    Musk is under investigation for his public statements affecting the stock value of the companies he was talking about. There are things you can not do as the owner of a company if it violates the rules on company disclosures. Free speech does not absolve you from the consequences of your speech. Violate the law with your speech and you can be investigated and prosecuted for it.
  • COLGeek
    Lets stay on topic folks. We are starting to stray a bit off course. Thank you.