Amid tensions with Russia, SpaceX to launch another astronaut crew

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SpaceX is gearing up to send its next crew of astronauts to the International Space Station, perhaps as early as Saturday night, in a flight that comes as the station continues to leak air and has been doing so recently at an increased rate.

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

“The teams are watching it,” he said. “We’re working with our Russian colleagues on the next steps. It’s not an impact right now to crew safety or vehicle operations, but something for everybody to 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 lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 11:16 p.m. Eastern time on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and travel to the station in a Dragon spacecraft.

The weather at the launch site is only 40 percent favorable, so the Crew-8 mission could move to another day. If SpaceX launches Crew-8 Saturday night, Dragon is scheduled to dock with the ISS at about 2:10 p.m. 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 that has continued despite growing tensions between the countries over the war in Ukraine. Russia had even threatened to leave the partnership in protest over U.S. sanctions, and its space program has suffered greatly since SpaceX now routinely transports people to the ISS, a task NASA once paid Russia handsomely to perform.

Last year, Russia had to send a replacement Soyuz spacecraft to the station, after one was damaged and leaking coolant while it was docked at the space station. Russian officials later determined that the spacecraft was not safe to transport its crew of two Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut home.

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

When asked about the reports of the threat, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, “It does concern me because, naturally, if those newspaper reports are true, then we would be concerned about the safety of our astronauts on the International Space Station and our foreign astronauts, which would include the Roscosmos cosmonauts. We would be concerned as well about our satellites, NASA’s satellites.”

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

“In fact, we’ve repaired a couple of 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’re going to do.”

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

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

The flight was delayed from last year after concerns about flammable tape inside the capsule as well as a design problem with the parachutes that are to slow the capsule down as it flies back through the atmosphere to Earth. NASA is eager to get Starliner flying so that it has two vehicles certified to fly crews to the station, giving it a backup in case one system suffers a problem.

“We’re excited about that flight,” Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said during the briefing. “In the factory over at Boeing, the Starliner spacecraft is pretty much closed out. We’ve loaded the fluid for the cooling system. The next big event really is to load propellant on the crew module and propellant in the service module, and that’ll happen in mid-March.”

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

SpaceX is also moving ahead with the next flight of Starship, its next-generation, fully reusable rocket booster and spacecraft that NASA intends to use to land astronauts on the moon. During 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 occurred that “resulted in a combustion event and subsequent fires that led to a loss of communication between the spacecraft’s flight computers,” SpaceX said in a recent statement. As a result, its onboard emergency flight termination system destroyed the vehicle.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently signed off on SpaceX’s investigation into the failure, but it said the company must still implement corrective actions and receive a modification to its license to address “all safety, environmental and other applicable regulatory requirements. The FAA is evaluating SpaceX’s license modification request and expects SpaceX to submit additional required information before a final determination can be made.”

SpaceX has said that it has already implemented a number of changes to the next vehicles to fly that would “improve leak reduction, fire protection and refined 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, putting flight hardware in a flight environment to learn as quickly as possible.”

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