SpaceX's Crew-5 astronaut mission for NASA remains on target to launch next week, provided Mother Nature cooperates.
SpaceX and NASA held a flight readiness review (FRR) for Crew-5 today (Sept. 26) that lasted more than nine hours. No major technical issues were identified during the FRR, so the Crew-5 teams continue to work toward a launch from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 12:46 p.m. EDT (1646 GMT) on Oct. 3.
"I thought it was a very thorough review," Steve Stich, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, said in a call with reporters this afternoon. "We're still on track for the launch on Oct. 3."
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That plan, however, is contingent on Hurricane Ian having but a minor impact on KSC, which is on Florida's Atlantic coast.
Ian is currently churning its way north through the Caribbean, and its winds have already begun lashing the Florida Keys. Current models predict that the storm will hit Florida's Gulf Coast particularly hard over the next few days, but KSC could be in the line of fire as well. Indeed, NASA is rolling its huge Artemis 1 moon rocket off KSC's Pad 39B tonight as a protective measure, to get the valuable hardware safely inside the facility's Vehicle Assembly Building. (Artemis 1 had been scheduled to launch to the moon on Tuesday; it's too soon to speculate about its next target liftoff date.)
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule that will fly the Crew-5 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) are safe; they haven't yet rolled out to Pad 39A. If the weather cooperates, the Crew-5 stack will likely roll out on Sept. 29, the same day that the mission's four crewmembers fly in to KSC, Bill Gerstenmaier, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said during today's briefing.
Those four astronauts — NASA's Nicole Aunapu Mann and Josh Cassada, Japan's Koichi Wakata and Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina — were supposed to arrive at KSC today, but the threat of Hurricane Ian is keeping them away for now. (Crew-5 will mark the first time a cosmonaut has flown to the ISS on a private American spacecraft.)
If the storm nixes an attempt on Oct. 3, backup opportunities will be available on Oct. 4 and Oct. 5, as well as Oct. 7 through Oct. 9, Stich said. (Oct. 6 is out of play because of orbital dynamics issues.) The Crew-5 astronauts will spend about five months aboard the orbiting lab before coming back home to Earth.
Though today's FRR went smoothly, the teams identified two minor issues to look into further, Stich said. One concerns bonds on a portion of the Dragon's perimeter, and the other is a potential non-standard weld in composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs), which are part of the Falcon 9's propulsion system.
Both issues are expected to be closed out in the next day or two, Stich and Gerstenmaier said.
It's unclear if the weld concern even affects the Crew-5 Falcon 9, which will be flying for the first time. But it's possible, given that the issue popped up on other COPVs made using the same techniques and/or personnel, Gerstenmaier said.
"We've actually flown it in some other cases on some other rockets and it's performed well, but that doesn't mean it's good enough for crew," he said of the weld.
"We've tested it already once and it looks like it's satisfactory. We're going to review that data with NASA tomorrow. They'll take a look at it, double check our work, make sure it's okay," he added. "So I would say this is like a precaution that we're going forward with to just make sure that we're flying the best hardware we can."
The Crew-5 Falcon 9 first stage was damaged during transport from SpaceX's rocket factory near Los Angeles to its Texas testing facilities; the booster was apparently not lowered properly and hit an overpass. The repair work, which pushed the planned launch of Crew-5 back a bit, has been thoroughly vetted, Gerstenmaier said.
"I think it was fortuitous that the event occurred on the way to Texas," Gerstenmaier said. "That allowed us to do all this work in Texas before we did the [propellant] loading test and before we did the normal static fire. So this rocket went through its normal full-up testing, post all the repairs, to make sure that it is really ready to go."
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.