Station mission planning reveals new target Commercial Crew launch dates

As part of standard planning among the international partners, NASA has revised its Visiting Vehicle plan for all upcoming and long-range missions to the International Space Station.

The update includes new planning dates for the first Commercial Crew launches on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner vehicles, when U.S. crew rotation flights are slated to begin, when Japan’s newest version of the HTV cargo craft will take flight, and when Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser cargo resupply vehicle will make its first trip to the outpost.

U.S. Commercial and Russian crew rotations:

(NOTE: The dates presented below are found on the most recent Flight Planning Integration Panel (FPIP) document – available in L2 – from NASA and are planning only dates.  They are not approved, target launch dates. They are subject to change, but do give insight into the earliest possible time frames for the remaining Commercial Crew demonstration flights.)

Of particular note, the FPIP shows Boeing’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) of they’re Starliner vehicle moving to a launch planning date of 17 September 2019 from SLC-41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Like SpaceX’s uncrewed demo flight earlier this year, Starliner’s OFT mission will see the vehicle spend 5 days docked to the International Space Station before returning to Earth.

Past that, Starliner’s Crew Flight Test (CFT) is dependent on the vehicle’s overall performance and post-fight reviews from its OFT mission.

More so, while SpaceX and NASA continue to investigate the cause of the Crew Dragon’s anomaly suffered on 20 April during a static fire test of the SuperDraco thruster system, the revised FPIP now shows a new planning date target for SpaceX’s crewed DM-2 mission.

DM-2 is now tentatively planned for 15 November 2019.  The flight would see NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley perform a 7-day test flight of the Dragon capsule before returning to Earth on 22 November.

According to the document, this would be followed one week later by the work-to launch date of Starliner’s CFT mission, which will see Mike Finke, Nicole Mann, and Chris Ferguson launch on 30 November 2019 and dock to the International Space Station on 1 December for the start of five months of on-Station operations.

The relined planning dates for the two crew test missions were updated on 17 June according to notes on the FPIP.

Looking ahead into next year, the document shows that the CFT mission of Starliner would remain at the Station until the end of May, joined in mid-May 2020 by the first official crew rotation flight as part of the Commercial Crew Program.

This mission would overlap with CFT by about a week, providing a direct handover between United States Operating Segment (USOS) crew on the Station.

Interestingly, the document reveals that NASA has not yet decided which of the Commercial Crew partners will fly the first official crew rotation mission; thus, the two U.S. crew members who will be on that flight to the Station in May 2020 is completely dependent on whether Starliner or Dragon flies the mission.

Regardless, the document shows that Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi will be on that first crew rotation mission regardless of which commercial partner flies it.

The second Commercial Crew rotation flight is then planned for mid-November 2020 before the first rotation mission returns at the end of that month.

These U.S. Commercial Crew rotation flights are currently slated to occur in the middle of scheduled Russian crew rotations with the Soyuz (e.g., the first U.S. crew rotation in May 2020 will follow a Russia vehicle-transported crew’s arrival in March).

Dragon 2 and Starliner set to make maiden flights to the ISS this year – via Nathan Koga for NSF/L2

As has been the plan from the beginning, one U.S. astronaut will always be present on future Soyuz rotation flights – even after U.S. crew vehicles begin flying – to maintain the agreed-upon presence of at least one U.S. astronaut and one Russian cosmonaut aboard the Station at all times.

However, a plan beginning in March 2021 appears to take Soyuz crew rotations exclusively to indirect handovers – meaning the only people to have arrived on a Soyuz will leave the Station on that Soyuz prior to their replacements arriving on the next Soyuz.

This is possible because four crew members will still be aboard the Station via U.S. commercial vehicles.

If this plan holds, it will mark the first time that no Soyuz vehicle will be present at the International Space Station since permanent crew habitation of the outpost began in November 2000.

Conversely, all U.S. crew vehicle rotations will involve direct handover periods, where two U.S. crew vehicles will be docked to the International Space Station at the same time.

CRS1 cargo contract completion:

The newly revised FPIP also provides insight on when the current Commercial Resupply Services 1 (CRS1) cargo contract will reach completion for each of the two providers.

Northrop Grumman’s portion of the CRS1 contract will conclude on 27 July 2019 with the NG-11 Cygnus’ planned unberth from the Station.

That Cygnus will then spend several more months in orbit testing long-duration mission capabilities for future missions.

SpaceX, on the other hand, has three more flights remaining in its CRS1 contract, with CRS-18 planned to launch No Earlier Than (NET) 21 July 2019, CRS-19 slated for 4 December 2019, and CRS-20 following in March 2020.

CRS-20 will mark SpaceX’s completion of the CRS1 contract and the final scheduled flight of the series of Dragons that currently perform Station resupply missions.

CRS2 flights – enter the Dream Chaser:

Following Northrop Grumman’s completion of their CRS1 contract this summer, the company will move seamlessly into the CRS2 contract round of flights this fall.

The first CRS2 Northrop Grumman flight of Cygnus is currently planned for launch on 22 October 2019 on the NG-12 mission, which will perform an 82 day berthed flight to the Station.

For SpaceX, CRS-21 is planned for August 2020 and will mark the first use of the previously flown Crew Dragon (either the In-Flight Abort or DM-2 Dragon) in its cargo configuration for Station resupply.

CRS-21 will deliver the NanoRacks airlock to the International Space Station via the Dragon’s trunk and will also mark the first cargo resupply Atlantic Ocean End Of Mission splashdown for a Dragon.

While CRS-21 is currently planned to be a standard 30-day mission, the FPIP indicates that beginning with CRS-23, SpaceX cargo missions will begin to stretch out to the 60-day and beyond mark.

Joining the Dragon and Cygnus vehicles for the CRS2 round of flights is Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser mini-space shuttle cargo plane.

According to the document, the first flight of Dream Chaser will take place in a planned September 2021 timeframe and will see the vehicle remain berthed to the International Space Station for up to 75 days before returning to Earth to land on a runway for reuse.

International cargo and module deliveries:

Of immediate note on the FPIP in this category is the upcoming Progress MS-12 cargo mission, slated to launch NET 31 July 2019.  It will perform a super fast-track 2 orbit, 3-hour rendezvous and docking with the Space Station.

Moreover, the new document provides a timeframe for JAXA’s upgraded HTV cargo vehicle’s debut.

Canadarm2 reaches and grabs the arriving HTV-7 resupply vehicle in December 2016. (Credit: NASA)

The new HTV is known as HTV-X and is now planned to make its inaugural trip to the Station in February 2022.

Finally, the document reveals that Russia’s long-planned and delayed science module, Nauka, is currently planned to launch in the June 2020 timeframe.

This will be followed in mid-December 2020 with the launch of another Russian Node (M-UM) up to the Station.

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