NASA and SpaceX plan to return one Crew Dragon spacecraft from orbit on Monday evening and launch another two days later, on Wednesday night.
The agency’s crew flight plans have been in flux since just before Halloween, when weather concerns and then a “minor medical issue” with one of the four astronauts on the Crew-3 mission delayed the rocket’s launch from October 31 into November.
Since that time, NASA and SpaceX, which provides the Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 launch system, have been evaluating a host of issues in order to determine how best to launch the Crew-3 mission and return the four Crew-2 astronauts from the International Space Station.
Among the most significant factors is the duration of the Crew-2 mission, which launched on April 23, 2021. The Endeavour spacecraft has now been in space for 199 days, which is fairly close to the vehicle’s certified mission length of 210 days.
This weekend, the agency decided to push the landing of Crew-2 ahead of the Crew-3 launch. NASA did so after assessing weather conditions at the landing sites for Endeavour in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, as well as launch site weather for Crew-3. It also considered conditions along the ascent “corridor” across the northern Atlantic Ocean, where a recovery would need to be made in the case of an emergency during the mission’s launch.
On Monday morning, NASA released its finalized plan for the sequence of events. Endeavour, carrying NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, JAXA astronaut Aki Hoshide, and European astronaut Thomas Pesquet, will undock from the International Space Station at 2:05 pm ET (19:05 UTC) on Monday. After undocking, Endeavour will fly around the space station to photograph its exterior, in part to provide data on the health of the aging station’s exterior.
Following this maneuver, Endeavour will begin the process of slowing down and reentering Earth’s orbit. It will splash down off the coast of Florida at 10:33 pm ET Monday (03:33 UTC Tuesday). NASA has not yet said whether the vehicle will land in the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean, as it is still evaluating seven possible locations for the calmest seas.
Pesquet’s presence on the space station, in particular, will be missed. For the last six months, the Frenchman has been a consistent source of grade-A memes. From space.
It seems we will not cross paths with our #Crew3 colleagues on the Space Station. Pity, it would have been a pleasure to explain the finer points of living up here 😉
🇫🇷 Quand tu bois ton café dans l’espace // Quand tu te souviens d’où vient l’eau pic.twitter.com/iPvKbvs7cZ
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) November 7, 2021
Once Endeavour has landed and the crew safely returned to Kennedy Space Center, NASA and SpaceX will turn their attention to the launch of Crew-3. This will require the rapid repositioning of sea-based assets, including ships involved in recovery operations.
As a result, NASA is now targeting no earlier than 9:03 pm ET on Wednesday (02:03 UTC Thursday) for the launch of Crew-3 from Kennedy Space Center. Four astronauts will fly aboard Crew Dragon Endurance—NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn, and Kayla Barron, as well as European astronaut Matthias Maurer. Weather conditions look favorable for a Wednesday night launch from Florida.
Following this timeline, the Crew-3 mission should dock with the International Space Station on Thursday, and the astronauts will spend the next six months in orbit performing a variety of science and maintenance operations.