(Image credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s next crew of astronauts are ready to strap into a SpaceX Dragon capsule and blast off into space.
The four astronauts are scheduled to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) on SpaceX’s next crewed mission Thursday (April 22) at 6:11 a.m. EST (1011 GMT). They practiced that launch day today (April 18) with one last predawn dress rehearsal.
The spaceflyers — NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, France’s Thomas Pesquet and Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide — arrived at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida on Friday (April 16) and have already begun their final preparations before liftoff, which included a quick chat with reporters broadcast from the astronaut crew quarters.
“It’s awesome to be here at Kennedy Space Center,” said Kimbrough, the Crew-2 mission commander said during the chat. “We’ve had some training already this morning, yesterday we got to go out to the pad to see the rocket and our spacecraft, which is really exciting for us.”
“It’s great to be here,” McArthur added. “We’re excited and ready to launch.”
The Crew-2 mission will see a veteran SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch a refurbished Crew Dragon spacecraft on a 23-hour trip to the space station. Liftoff is set for 6:11 a.m. EDT on Thursday (1011 GMT) from KSC’s historic Pad 39A. If all goes according to plan, the Crew Dragon — which was named Endeavor by its previous crew — will dock with the ISS at around 5:30 a.m. EDT (0930 GMT) on Friday.
Their ride to orbit will be the first time that crew will not ride to space on a shiny new Falcon 9 rocket; their booster, which rolled out to the pad Friday morning (April 16) for a planned prelaunch static fire test on Saturday (April 17), first flew in November as it delivered the Crew-1 crew to space.
Crew-2 is the second operational, contracted mission to launch as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Kimbrough, McArthur, Pesquet, and Hoshide will stay on board the space station for a six-month mission.
“I just want to take a moment to thank the people that get us here, that get us ready, and that get all of this ready to make it happen,” said Crew-2 pilot, Megan McArthur. “It’s a huge number of people, including our families, of course, sacrificing along the way as we prepare.”
“And I just really want to take every opportunity to say thank you, because we know how much work it takes and we really appreciate that,” she added.
McArthur has generated buzz lately for her sparkly taste in footwear. When she arrived at Kennedy Space Center, she was wearing her typical astronaut blues, along with a pair of silvery, glitter boots. When asked if she could comment on them, McArthur said “I don’t know if I can explain them, but I can show them off again.”
“They’re pretty awesome,” Pesquet, her crewmate said on Friday after the crew’s arrival. “There was talk of us all wearing them, but for some reason she was outvoted.”
McArthur said that the boots bring her joy.
“I think it’s been a difficult year for everyone, and I decided that I needed a bit of extra sparkle,” she said. “It’s just fun to wear them.”
But that’s not the only flair that McArthur sports — a special patch that only few astronauts have adorns her jacket. McArthur said she earned it during her shuttle flight to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
“Hubble is in a different orbit than the space station, so in order to get there you have to be traveling faster at main engine cut off (MECO) than you would on a typical mission,” McArthur explained. “So our commander had these patches made for us when we came home.”
An Earth Day launch
Crew-2 is slated to launch on April 22, which just so happens to be Earth day.
“It means a lot to us [to launch on Earth day] because we all individually care about the Earth, but also because our agencies are at the forefront of the fight to protect the environment,” said Pesquet when asked how he felt about leaving the planet on Earth day.
“It’s only by going into space that we’ve been able to take a step back and really measure all the variables that enable scientists to determine what’s happening to the planet,” he said.
Pesquet says that as astronauts they’re all a part of the global effort to understand climate change and how humanity affects the planet. That thanks to the research done in space, NASA and its partners are able to better assess the health of the planet and try to make it better, like the slogan says, “off the Earth, for the Earth.”
That’s a phrase that McArthur says she thinks about every time she leaves the planet. “When we go to space, we’re doing some really incredible work for everybody here on Earth,” she said. “So it’s really special and humbling to be part of something that’s going to help people and all humanity.”
“I think it’s a great symbol that we launch on Earth day,” Pesquet added.
This is the third overall crewed flight of a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, and as such the current crew has learned a thing or two from it’s previous flyers. McArthur’s husband, and fellow astronaut, Bob Behnken, was one of the first two astronauts to fly on the Dragon and spent several years helping SpaceX develop the vehicle before it got off the ground.
She explained that her husband, Bob, flew the Crew Dragon last year as part of the demonstration mission and happened to be in the same seat that she’ll be in. When asked about any advice he may have offered her, she said that “he’s shared tidbits along the way, [about the vehicle], but no one specific piece of advice.”
“I did, though, have several years of learning from him along the way as they developed the vehicle,” she said. “And then as I went through training, I really had a framework to put some of that information.”
The previous crews did happen to mention how the Dragon and Falcon sound as they climb to orbit and that’s one of the things that Kimbrough and Hoshide are looking forward to during the launch.
“For Shane and I, it’s going to be our third spacecraft we’re leaving Earth with,” Hoshide said. “We’re looking forward to the rumble and the G forces pushing on our chests.”
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” he added.
“It’s very comforting to know what sounds to expect when you’re going through a very dynamic phase,” said Kimbrough.
He explained that after each mission, the teams at NASA and SpaceX are able to streamline the training process more and more thanks to lessons learned and astronaut feedback. “We’re really the first crew to have a templated flow of training, even though two others have gone before us,” he said. “So, we’ve had a little less than a year of training, whereas the crews in front of us have had several years of training.”
“I think it’s at a good place now and we’ll just continue to get refined as we go on with future missions.”
McArthur and crew explained that they will be continuing the tradition of picking a special zero-g indicator that will be used to signal when the crew has officially reached space during its climb to orbit.
On SpaceX’s uncrewed Demo-1 flight to the space station, which launched in March 2019, SpaceX put a plush Earth toy in the Dragon cockpit so that mission controllers could tell when the craft reached space. (The plush Earth started floating about the cabin when this happened.) On Demo-2, Hurley and Behnken let their young sons pick the indicator.
The boys chose a pink and blue sequined dinosaur, while the Crew-1 crew chose a plush baby yoda. When asked about what the indicator would be this time around and if McArthur’s son would have a hand in selecting a second toy, McArthur said that “our crew will have a zero-G indicator that we chose together.”
“We all have sons and daughters that belong to this mission,” she said, “so our families have chosen an indicator that you’ll see once we reach zero-G.”
Unlike crews in Russia who have their own prelaunch traditions, that don’t really include viewing the rocket, the Crew-2 astronauts were able to continue SpaceX’s tradition of taking crews to see their rocket before launch day.
“We came in on the plane over here and we got to fly by the pad and see our rocket getting ready to go,” said McArthur. “There’s really nothing like looking out the window and seeing a spaceship getting prepared and realizing that you’re going to be riding on it in a few days.”
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” she said.
Following a quick chat with the media after stepping off the plane, the quartet of astronauts were treated to an up close and personal view of their rocket.
“When we pulled up to the rocket, we were giggling,”Kimbrough told Space.com, “I think we all just couldn’t believe that’s our rocket.”
He said that when they arrived at the pad, the rocket was not fully vertical and that they were able to watch as the rocket went vertical on the launch pad. “It was really neat to see it go from about halfway up, all the way to the vertical position, and then see the crew access arm swing,” Kimbrough said. “It was pretty special.”
“It looks fabulous,” said Hoshide. “We’re looking forward to actually riding it and flying on it.”
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