NASA ready for Ax-1 return and Crew-4 launch

WASHINGTON — NASA said it is preparing for a series of rapid-fire events on the International Space Station, which includes the return of a private astronaut mission and the launch of a new long-duration crew American and European astronauts.

NASA announced April 15 that Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission to the station, which launched April 8 and docked with the station the next day, will conclude with a scheduled undocking at 10 a.m. 35 Eastern Time on April 19. the Florida coast at 7:19 a.m. EST on April 20.

This schedule means that the Ax-1 crew will spend a few more days on the ISS than originally planned. Axiom Space originally said the Ax-1 mission would last 10 days, eight of which would be on the ISS. According to the current schedule, they will be on the station for 10 days and spend nearly 12 days in space. Neither NASA nor Axiom revealed the reason for the extended stay, but weather considerations for the splash were a major factor in past returns to Earth by ISS crews on the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.

A splashdown on April 20 will allow NASA to launch the Crew-4 mission to the ISS as early as April 23. NASA held a flight readiness review on April 15 for this Crew Dragon mission to the station, approving plans to proceed with an attempted launch on April 23 at 5:26 a.m. EST from the Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A.

Crew-4 will deliver NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines and Jessica Watkins, and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, to the station for a mission lasting at least September. NASA plans to return the four Crew-3 astronauts currently on the station – NASA’s Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn and Kayla Barron and ESA’s Matthias Maurer – approximately five days after Crew-4 arrives.

Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, said on a call with reporters after the Crew-4 flight readiness review that it was a “busy time ahead” for the station. “We’ve all talked about the need to stay vigilant and we’re taking it step by step.”

This vigilance includes at least 48 hours between Ax-1 splashdown and Crew-4 launch to perform post-flight reviews. “Our team has been tracking this mission,” said Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, calling the Ax-1 spacecraft “very clean” in terms of having no technical issues. “We will have time to do a review between this landing and the launch of Crew-4.”

Joel Montalbano, NASA’s ISS program manager, said NASA would use the same tracking means, such as an aircraft equipped with an infrared camera, to monitor the Ax-1 splashdown as it would. for a NASA commercial crew mission.

“We track all Dragon flights,” Stich said, including cargo and private astronaut missions. “We will follow this flight to the water landing.”

The next Crew-4 launch comes as NASA continues to work on the countdown repeater for the Space Launch System at nearby Launch Complex 39B. At a briefing earlier on April 15, SLS officials said they would be ready to attempt another tank of the rocket sooner and go through a training countdown on April 21, pending work to find and repair a hydrogen leak discovered during the last test on April 14. .

However, Lueders said the Crew-4 launch would have lineup priority over any SLS tests. “Jim Free and I agreed very early in this stream that getting our crews on the ISS is really the most important mission,” she said, referring to the Associate Administrator for Systems Development. ‘exploration. “There is a difference between a test and putting a crew into orbit to keep the vehicle in orbit and bring Crew-3 down.”

NASA has slack in the schedule if Crew-4 is delayed. Stich said they want Crew-3 back by May 10, when a “beta blackout” caused by sun angles limits undocking operations at the station. However, he added that the Crew-3 spacecraft is in good health and is expected to remain at the station until mid-June.

A Crew-3 return by May 10, however, would allow NASA and Boeing to conduct a second uncrewed test flight of the CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle, currently scheduled for launch on May 19. may. This will be followed by a SpaceX freighter. Mission Dragon at the station in June.

At a separate media event on April 15, the four Crew-3 astronauts said they were looking forward to returning to Earth soon, but were enjoying their time on the station. This included working with the four private Ax-1 astronauts.

“It’s been a really exciting week,” said Marshburn of the Ax-1 crew. “We had a lot of fun showing them around, showing them how to live and work on the space station. They were great teammates. They were also very nice and kind to us. So it’s been a wonderful week.

Chari added that there were not too many people on the station with 11 people on board, including the Crew-4 and Ax-1 crews and three Russian cosmonauts. “It’s definitely the dawn of a new era.”