CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Following a series of delays, SpaceX will launch a crew of four astronauts Wednesday evening (Nov. 10) on its third operational crewed flight for NASA, and you can watch the action online.
The SpaceX mission, known as Crew-3, is scheduled to blast off from Pad 39A here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 9:03 p.m. EST (0203 GMT on Nov. 9). A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will send a Crew Dragon capsule with four astronauts toward the International Space Station (ISS) — if the weather cooperates.
Live updates: SpaceX's Crew-3 astronaut mission
Crew-3 carries three NASA astronauts and one international spaceflyer. The mission is commanded by NASA's Raja Chari, with fellow NASA astronauts Tom Marshburn serving as pilot and Kayla Barron as a mission specialist. Also on board will be ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, who will become the 600th person ever to reach space. Crew-3 will be the first spaceflight for Chari, Barron and Maurer and the third for Marshburn.
"You don't see many rookie commanders," Holly Ridings, chief flight director for the Flight Operations Directorate at NASA's Johnson Space Center, said last month during a prelaunch news briefing.
"It's really just a testament to what an amazing person he is; he's incredibly, incredibly capable, as they all are," Ridings added. "But in particular, he's just done an outstanding job."
A launch after a landing
Forecasters said that the weather here on Florida's Space Coast will likely be good on launch day. There's an 80% chance of favorable conditions for liftoff not only at the Cape but also downrange. If the mission is unable to get off the ground on Wednesday, NASA says the next attempt will be 24 hours later (Nov. 11).
The Crew-3 launch comes on the heels of four astronauts returning to Earth following their own six-month mission to the ISS. Crew-2 astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur of NASA, along with Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan's Akihiko Hoshide, splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico just south of Pensacola, Florida, on Monday night (Nov. 8).
Their return, which was originally slated to occur after the Crew-3 launch, was bumped up due to a series of weather-related delays. Poor weather along Crew-3's flight path, coupled with a minor medical issue with one of the Crew-3 crewmembers, prompted NASA to rethink its order of operations.
With one NASA astronaut still on station (Mark Vande Hei), agency officials opted to do an indirect handover of the station and let Vande Hei introduce the Crew-3 newbies to their new space digs, while Kimbrough and crew returned to Earth.
Amazing photos: Stargazers spot Crew-2 Dragon streaking across the night sky
Following the Crew-2's safe return, NASA pivoted to the Crew-3 launch, conducting one final launch readiness review ahead of a planned launch on Nov. 10. Agency officials deemed the flight ready for launch, addressing a couple of issues with the media during a teleconference late Tuesday night — parachutes and debris avoidance.
"We took our time tonight, with the launch readiness review to really go through the data," Steve Stich, NASA's Commercial Crew Program manager, said. "And we don't see any issues going into tomorrow's launch."
Stich said that the teams poured over all the data and that the capsule, the crew, and the rocket are all ready to launch. He said that the Crew-2 landing went smoothly and that there were no issues going into the launch, despite what seemed like an anomaly with one of the Crew-2 parachutes.
"We had one parachute [on the Crew-2 Dragon] that inflated a little slower than the others," Stich said during the briefing on Tuesday night (Nov. 9). "But the landing rates were nominal. We've poured over the data and convinced ourselves that we are in good shape for launch."
SpaceX's Bill Gerstenmaier said that the teams helicoptered two of the Dragon's four parachutes to SpaceX facilities here at the Cape after they were retrieved from the water. Those parachutes were carefully inspected to see if there were any sort of issues. Gerstenmaier said none were found.
He also said that SpaceX and NASA talked to the vendor, looked up build records, and poured over video and data from the Crew-2 launch as well as for the Dragon Endurance to make sure the capsule was safe to fly astronauts.
"We looked at the parachutes and we don't see anything that's off-nominal," he told reporters.
Joel Montalbano, NASA's International Space Station program manager, said that prior to Crew-3 blasting off, the space station will need to conduct an avoidance maneuver. SpaceX and NASA have been tracking a piece of an old Chinese satellite that is in the station's path. The maneuver is not expected to impact the launch and will take the place of a station boost, which was to take place in the near future.
Crew-3 will also mark the 129th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket to date, and the 93rd recovery of a first-stage booster (if all goes as planned). SpaceX’s drone ship Just Read the Instructions is positioned out in the Atlantic Ocean, awaiting its planned recovery attempt. Approximately nine minutes after liftoff, the two-stage rocket’s first stage is expected to touch down on the deck of the massive ship.
The rocket featured in this mission has one flight under its belt so far, having lofted a different Dragon spacecraft in June as part of a cargo resupply mission to the ISS. The rocket rolled to the pad in late October ahead of the planned Halloween launch. SpaceX test-fired its engines on Oct. 28, certifying that the rocket was good to go.
The Crew-3 astronauts arrived at KSC on Oct. 26 and spent the weeks prepping for their flight, including conducting a dress rehearsal on Oct. 28. During that test, the crew practiced suiting up, driving to the pad and then strapping into their Crew Dragon. Maurer also took some time to clean up trash on a local beach as he waited for launch.
On Oct. 29, NASA and SpaceX first gave the go-ahead for liftoff during a launch readiness review. The only concern was the weather, which Kathy Lueders, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, described as "marginal."
Crew Dragon is equipped with a launch escape system that will push the capsule away from the rocket in the event of an in-flight anomaly. As such, launch weather officers must monitor the weather at various points along the flight trajectory.
And SpaceX has deployed its fleet of Dragon-recovery vessels in various positions around Florida in case something goes wrong during launch and an in-flight abort is necessary.
Despite the favorable weather, forecasters are still keeping an eye on the recovery zone where the Falcon 9 first stage will land on the drone ship. As of now, the sea states are estimated to be fairly calm and able to support a rescue in the event of an anomaly.
If all goes as planned, Crew-3 will dock with the orbital outpost on Thursday (Nov. 11) at 7:10 p.m. EST (0010 GMT on Nov. 12).