SpaceX sees growing demand for private Crew Dragon missions – Spaceflight Now

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European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet took this view of two SpaceX Dragon spacecraft docked to the International Space Station during a spacewalk on September 12. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavor spacecraft is docked at the top port of the Harmony module, while a Cargo Dragon capsule is docked with the front port in the background. Credit: NASA / ESA / Thomas Pesquet

With the return of the all-civilian Inspiration4 crew mission to Earth, SpaceX’s director of human spaceflight programs says the company is seeing increased interest in more private astronaut flights into orbit and may expand its fleet of spacecraft reusable Dragon spacecraft to meet growing demand.

SpaceX has four other Crew Dragon missions to the International Space Station under contract with NASA, as well as four private crew missions to the station for Axiom Space, a Houston-based company with the ambition to build a research outpost. commercial low Earth orbit that could replace the ISS.

There is also a contract with space tourism company Space Adventures for an autonomous Crew Dragon flight that will not go to the International Space Station, a solo mission similar to Inspiration4 flight that ended on Saturday with a successful landing in The Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX also has a contract with NASA for space station resupply missions using the company’s fleet of Cargo Dragon capsules, which are based on the spacecraft rated by the crew, but fly without seats or launch rockets. of escape.

“We have a lot of big NASA crew and cargo missions, and we have the astronaut trade missions,” said Benji Reed, SpaceX’s chief crew officer, following the landing. of the Inspiration4 crew of four on Saturday. night.

Inspiration4, a privately funded mission to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, is “just the beginning” of astronaut trade missions, Reed said.

SpaceX has flown two Crew Dragon spacecraft, each certified for at least five missions.

The Crew Dragon Endeavor spacecraft is currently docked at the International Space Station for its second trip to orbit, and is expected to return to Earth with its four-person team of NASA, European and Japanese astronauts in November. The Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft traveled to the station for a six-month mission that returned to Earth in May, then transported the Inspiration4 crew into orbit and back on their three-day flight.

SpaceX has built a new Crew Dragon capsule for the next launch of NASA astronauts to the space station, scheduled for October 31 on a Falcon 9 rocket. This flight, designated Crew-3, will spend about half a year docked at the station.

NASA Commander Raja Chari will lead the Crew-3 mission, joined by pilot Thomas Marshburn – a veteran of two previous space flights – European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer and NASA astronaut Kayla Barron.

The Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft is slated to launch again in February with the Axiom crew’s first mission to the space station. This mission, known as Ax-1, will be commanded by veteran NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, who retired from the space agency in 2012 after nearly 258 days in orbit on four missions. .

Three wealthy businessmen will join López-Alegría for an eight-day stay in the space station. The whole mission is expected to last around 10 days, from takeoff to landing.

Reed did not specify how many additional Crew Dragon spacecraft SpaceX are building beyond the new capsule for the Crew-3 mission launch next month. But the company could build more, depending on market demand.

“We just couldn’t be happier with this kick-off,” Reed said after Inspiration4 returned. “We will evaluate our manifesto as we go along and will also evaluate our fleet. “

He said there was “tons of interest” from the private sector and high net worth individuals to soar into space for the Crew Dragon missions. NASA is also expected to extend SpaceX’s commercial crew contract for additional government-sponsored Crew Dragon flights to the space station.

“I see our ability to already be able to switch to the scope type of five or six missions (per year),” Reed said.

The rate of flight will be facilitated by SpaceX’s use of refurbished rockets and spacecraft. The Falcon 9 booster stage used for Crew Dragon launches is reusable, as is the Dragon spacecraft crew module. The Dragon’s pressureless safe, which houses the craft’s solar panels, and the Falcon 9 rocket upper stage are single-use only.

SpaceX’s next-generation Starship vehicle, currently being tested in South Texas, will eventually carry people to and from space as well, he said. It is designed to be fully reusable.

“On the horizon, of course, is Starship, and Starship will be able to carry a lot of people at once,” Reed said.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa plans to participate in a Starship mission around the moon and back, once the giant spacecraft is certified for human travel.

But SpaceX’s near-term business prospects for private crew missions appear solid, Reed said.

“I can’t really say specifics about the numbers or anything like that, or exactly what they’re interested in,” Reed said. “I don’t even know myself at this point, but I do know, for a fact, that the number of people contacting us through our sales and marketing portals has actually increased significantly. So it’s exciting.

Crew Dragon seats sell for around $ 55 million, according to NASA, which also charges private space flight operators to commercial astronauts for space station training and use of space station equipment.

The Inspiration4 mission was the first American manned space flight to orbit the Earth without major NASA participation. Advocates of commercial spaceflight have said Inspiration4 opens the door to launching “everyday people” into space, where fewer than 600 people have flown since the dawn of the space age.

The cost of space travel is still out of reach for most people. But SpaceX is working to make space missions more “airline-like” with lower prices and less risk, Reed said ahead of the launch of Inspiration4.

The NASA Inspector General said a seat in a Crew Dragon spacecraft for a six-month expedition to the International Space Station costs the agency more than $ 50 million.

Jared Isaacman, the billionaire who commissioned the Inspiration4 mission, paid SpaceX less than that, according to officials familiar with the arrangement. But SpaceX and Isaacman did not disclose the exact cost of the flight.

“We can’t talk about the price of the mission,” Reed said. “It’s obviously private.”

Axiom’s missions, unlike Inspiration4, will have an experienced astronaut at the helm of each Crew Dragon flight.

Isaacman and his teammates trained with SpaceX for six months to prepare for their trip to orbit. They were ready to take over and manually control the capsule, if necessary, but the Crew Dragon spacecraft are designed to operate on autopilot, under the supervision of ground controllers at SpaceX headquarters in California.

Axiom’s second mission, Ax-2, could launch in late 2022, pending NASA approval. Retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and veteran race car pilot and pilot John Shoffner will participate in the Ax-2 mission with up to two unnamed civilian teammates.

Officials have not announced crew members for Axiom’s third and fourth missions, or the Space Adventures flight.

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