Thursday, April 18, 2024

Amid tensions with Russia, SpaceX to launch Crew-8 to space station – The Washington Post

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SpaceX is preparing to send its next crew of astronauts to the International Space Station, possibly as early as Saturday evening, in a flight that comes as the station continues to leak air at a rate accelerated recently.

At a press briefing earlier this week, Joel Montalbano, NASA’s International Space Station program manager, said the leak had recently doubled, from one to two pounds per day. The leak is located in the Russian segment of the station and was isolated by closing a hatch in the area, thereby isolating it from the rest of the football field-sized station.

“Teams are looking at that,” he said. “We are working with our Russian colleagues on the next steps. This has no impact on crew safety or vehicle operation at this time, but something everyone should be aware of. »

SpaceX’s flight to the station includes three NASA astronauts – Jeanette Epps, Matthew Dominick and Michael Barratt – as well as a Russian cosmonaut, Alexander Grebenkin. They are scheduled to blast off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 11:16 p.m. aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and fly to the station aboard a Dragon spacecraft.

The weather at the launch site is only 40% favorable, so the Crew-8 mission could be postponed to another day. If SpaceX launches Crew-8 on Saturday evening, Dragon should dock with the ISS around 2:10 p.m. on Sunday.

The presence of a Russian cosmonaut on the flight is another reminder of the binding partnership between Russia and the United States in space, which has continued despite growing tensions between the two countries over the war in Ukraine . Russia had even threatened to leave the partnership to protest US sanctions, and its space program has suffered greatly since SpaceX now regularly transports people to the ISS, a task for which NASA once paid Russia handsomely.

Last year, Russia had to send a replacement Soyuz spacecraft to the station, after one was damaged and leaked coolant while docked with the space station. Russian officials later determined the spacecraft was unsafe to transport home its crew of two Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut.

The SpaceX launch also comes amid concerns that Russia is developing a nuclear weapon that could be detonated in space to target satellites, which has alarmed members of Congress and national security officials who said it could wipe out a vital layer of the country’s communications and communications. intelligence infrastructure. Such a weapon would strike indiscriminately, officials said, and could also damage the ISS as well as the station that China has assembled in orbit.

Asked about reports of the threat, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said: “It concerns me because, naturally, if these newspaper reports are true, then we would be concerned about the safety of our astronauts on the International Space Station and our aliens. astronauts, which would include Roscosmos cosmonauts. We would also be concerned about our satellites, the NASA satellites.”

As for the current leak, Montalbano said it is in an area that in the past “has had some leaks.”

“We actually fixed a few cracks in that module,” he said. Still, he said, the rest of the ISS “is solid.” The hatch is expected to be closed until early April, he added, and NASA is working with its Russian colleagues at Roscosmos “on the next steps and what we are going to do.”

This is SpaceX’s eighth crew rotation flight to the ISS and its ninth human spaceflight mission for NASA, including a two-astronaut test flight in May 2020. Since then, it has also flew four private astronaut missions.

Boeing, the other company NASA hired to transport astronauts to the ISS, has yet to send a single person into orbit on its Starliner capsule. But after years of delays, two NASA astronauts, Sunita Williams and Barry “Butch” Wilmore, are finally scheduled to take a test flight to the station in late April.

The flight was delayed from last year due to concerns about flammable tape inside the capsule as well as a design issue with the parachutes that are meant to slow the capsule as it returns through the atmosphere towards the Earth. NASA is eager to fly Starliner so it has two certified vehicles to transport crews to the station, giving it a backup in case a system experiences a problem.

“We’re excited about this flight,” Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said during the briefing. “In the Boeing factory, the Starliner spacecraft is practically closed. We charged the fluid for the cooling system. The next big event is really loading propellant onto the crew module and propellant into the service module, and that will happen in mid-March.

In a statement, Boeing said teams had already loaded the spacecraft with 759 pounds of cargo, including supplies, tools, personal hygiene items for the astronauts as well as clothing and food.

SpaceX is also moving forward with the next flight of Starship, its fully reusable next-generation rocket booster and spacecraft that NASA intends to use to land astronauts on the Moon. On its second flight, in November, the spacecraft successfully separated from the booster. But then a leak occurred during a planned venting of excess liquid oxygen, which “resulted in a combustion event and subsequent fires that led to a loss of communication between the flight computers of the spacecraft,” SpaceX said in a recent statement. As a result, its onboard emergency flight abort system destroyed the vehicle.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently approved SpaceX’s investigation into the failure, but it said the company must still implement corrective measures and receive a modification to its license to meet “all applicable regulatory requirements in safety, environment and other matters. The FAA is evaluating SpaceX’s license modification request and expects SpaceX to submit additional required information before a final decision can be made.

SpaceX said it has already implemented a number of changes for the next vehicles to fly that would “improve leak reduction, fire protection, and refine operations associated with the propellant vent to increase reliability.”

The company is already working on future Starship boosters and spacecraft that “are ready to fly, placing flight hardware in a flight environment to learn as quickly as possible.”

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