NASA hails SpaceX’s ‘beautiful’ Crew-6 astronaut launch

March 2, 2023

NASA hails SpaceX’s ‘beautiful’ Crew-6 astronaut launch

By Mike Wall,

SpaceX just sent another batch of astronauts toward the International Space Station (ISS), and NASA couldn’t be happier.

A Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:34 a.m. EST (0534 GMT) on Thursday (March 2), kicking off SpaceX’s four-person Crew-6 flight for NASA. The launch went off without a hitch, and it was easy on the eyes as well.

“Wow, what a beautiful launch!” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s human spaceflight chief, said in a news conference on Thursday morning, about two hours after liftoff.

“We’ve been really enjoying the night sky, with the Venus-Jupiter conjunction,” she added. “And somebody mentioned to me that we added a bright new star to that night sky tonight.”

That’s not to suggest that the launch was flawless, however. For example, Crew-6’s Dragon capsule, a vehicle named Endeavour, experienced a minor issue shortly after separating from the Falcon 9’s upper stage.

A sensor associated with one of the six hooks that open Endeavour’s protective nose cone after it reaches space returned an anomalous reading, causing the capsule to switch over to a backup system. The backup worked as designed, and the nose cone opened on schedule.

Those six nose-cone hooks are also part of a 12-hook system that Endeavour will use to dock with the ISS, which the capsule is expected to do at 1:17 a.m. EST (0617 GMT) on Friday (March 3). But analyses indicate that the potentially anomalous sensor won’t be a problem going forward, said Benji Reed, senior director of SpaceX’s human spaceflight program.

“At this point in time, we don’t foresee any issue, and we see no elevated risk to the crew for docking or for, after six months, when it comes time to close that nose cone again,” Reed said during the postlaunch news conference, referring to Crew-6’s planned return to Earth six months from now.

Also, Crew-6 was originally supposed to launch on Monday morning (Feb. 27), but the attempt was scrubbed late in the countdown after teams noticed a ground-system issue.

Specifically, they couldn’t confirm that the Falcon 9 had access to a full load of triethylaluminum triethylboron (TEA-TEB), a highly combustible fluid that helps the rocket’s nine first-stage Merlin engines ignite at the right time.

Analyses soon revealed that the TEA-TEB issue was caused by a clogged filter, Reed said. The launch team replaced the filter, and that solved the problem.

Crew-6’s launch occurred four years to the day after the liftoff of Demo-1, SpaceX’s first test flight to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Demo-1 was an uncrewed mission, but it laid the foundation for many astronaut flights to come.

As its name suggests, Crew-6 is the sixth operational crewed mission that SpaceX has conducted for NASA. And that tally doesn’t count Demo-2, a test flight that launched agency astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley toward the ISS on May 30, 2020.

Lueders mentioned the Demo-1 anniversary and noted that it has spurred some reflection.

“Seven crewed missions over this last three years — so, just phenomenal effort and progression by the team,” she said.

SpaceX’s overall crewed-mission tally is higher than that, by the way. Elon Musk’s company has launched two private astronaut flights to Earth orbit as well — the free-flying Inspiration4 in September 2021 and the Ax-1 mission to the ISS in April 2022.

The four Crew-6 astronauts are NASA’s Stephen Bowen and Woody Hoburg, cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev and Sultan Al Neyadi, who will become the first person from the United Arab Emirates to spend a six-month mission on the ISS.

About five days after Crew-6 arrives at the orbiting lab, SpaceX’s Crew-5 mission will depart, heading home for Earth.

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