SpaceX’s busy schedule continues with another astronaut return

By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business

Three NASA astronauts and one European astronaut return home from the International Space Station, wrapping up their six-month mission during which they worked alongside Russian cosmonauts and welcomed the first fully private crew to visit the outpost in orbit.

The crew boarded their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule after midnight and undocked from the space station in the early hours of Thursday morning. They will spend all day Thursday flying freely in orbit as their spacecraft nears the edge of Earth’s atmosphere.

The most dangerous part of the mission will take place a day later. The SpaceX Crew Dragon will return to the atmosphere while traveling at more than 22 times the speed of sound, subjecting astronauts to intense G-forces at the start of the final part of their descent. Their capsule will then deploy parachutes and float to a landing off the coast of Florida. They are tentatively scheduled to hit the water at 12:43 a.m. ET Friday.

This will mark the conclusion of SpaceX’s third operational mission to the ISS that the company has conducted in partnership with NASA.

SpaceX has had a whirlwind month of activity. It kicked off with the launch of the private AX-1 mission to the ISS on April 8, and the company brought that crew home last week. Then SpaceX launched the Crew-4 astronauts last Wednesday, who will replace the Crew-3 astronauts on the ISS staff, and then immediately began preparing for the return of Crew-3. Meanwhile, the company’s Falcon 9 rocket was busy launching satellites into orbit, which includes a batch of the company’s Starlink internet satellites, last Friday.

Falcon 9 rockets have already completed 17 launches so far this year.

The intent of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon program was to return astronaut launches to the United States for the first time since NASA’s space shuttle program retired in 2011, allowing NASA to keep the space station fully staffed. its own astronauts as well as astronauts from partner space agencies. such as the European Space Agency (ESA). Before the Crew Dragon entered service in 2020, NASA was forced to rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for ISS crew transport.

The four astronauts on the Crew-3 mission are NASA’s Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, as well as a German ESA astronaut, Matthias Maurer.

Chari, Marshburn, Barron and Maurer leave behind three Russian cosmonauts and NASA and ESA astronauts Crew-4.

The Crew-3 astronauts adhered to a strict schedule of performing science experiments and maintenance work on the 20-year-old ISS, and they completed three spacewalks, during which they don the iconic white space suits inflate and exit the ISS to float in the vacuum of space. And last month, they had a one-of-a-kind experience welcoming non-astronauts to the ISS with the arrival of the AX-1 crew, the all-private mission to the ISS. This mission included three men who paid for their trip to space and a former NASA astronaut who commissioned the mission on behalf of Axiom Space, which negotiated the mission with SpaceX.

Asked how professional astronauts worked alongside visitors, Marshburn said they were “great teammates”.

“They were also very nice and kind to us,” he said.

One of the AX-1 crew members, Larry Connor, also told CNN Business, “If it hadn’t been for NASA’s Crew 3 astronauts and their phenomenal help , we would have never – emphasize the word never – been able to accomplish all of our goals,” Connor said. “We underestimated the time spent on some projects. At first, we had a project that we thought was two hours and a half, take five hours.

At a press conference last month, Crew-3 also made it clear that it has a friendly working relationship with its Russian counterparts on the space station, despite rising geopolitical tensions on the ground, and Marshburn said. said the Crew-3 astronauts bonded frequently. visits to the part of the ISS under Russian control.

“Every day we go there, and we usually have a meal together at least once on the weekend, maybe we watch a movie together,” he told reporters.

During ceremony in which Marshburn handed over the role of ISS commander to his Russian colleague Oleg Artemyev on Wednesday, Marshburn said the “lasting legacy of the space station will most likely be international cooperation and a place of peace.”

Addressing his successor, Mashburn said: “Oleg, you are a very strong and experienced cosmonaut, an astronaut. I know we will leave the space station in good hands with you.

Artemyev said, “I accept” and added, “Thank you for the key. Thank you for your friendship. It was an amazing time together,” a possible reference to being aboard the orbiting workstation during wartime.

Barron, who holds a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Cambridge, was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2017 and comes directly from a field of work that involves extreme living conditions and long episodes of isolation. : submarines. Barron became one of the first women to serve in a United States Navy submarine in 2010.

Chari also joined NASA’s Astronaut Corps in 2017 as one of its newest inductees and marks her first flight into space. He has a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT and is a graduate of the US Naval Test Pilot School, which has a long history of providing a pipeline to the astronaut corps.

Chari and Barron – who had never been in space before the Crew-3 mission – were also both selected for NASA’s Artemis astronaut corps, which could fly on future missions to the moon.

Barron said they were considering doing spacewalks during the Crew-3 mission as the best preparation: “When we start thinking about things like going back to the moon – doing the moon walk – I think that’s the best way we could have prepared.”

The mission also marked the first space trip for ESA’s German Maurer, who joined the European Astronaut Corps in 2015.

“I have to say we really feel like we’ve been super prepared by our training on the pitch to go through this, but you can’t prepare for a lot of things,” Barron said of the experience. space for the first time. “I think you can intellectualize the experience of living and working in microgravity, but until you experience it, you don’t really know what it’s going to be like.”

Microgravity can be disorienting, as Maurer told reporters.

“The room is three-dimensional, so even if you put something on the wall, and you think, ‘Okay, I know where this is,'” he said, “and suddenly it seems that you have lost something.”

The mission’s pilot, NASA’s Marshburn, is the only veteran astronaut on the crew. He has a background in physics and holds a doctorate in medicine, and he first joined NASA in the early 1990s as a flight surgeon. He joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 2004 and has previously participated in a space shuttle mission and a Russian Soyuz mission to the ISS.

“I was a little surprised to find out how emotional I was” on that mission, Marshburn said. “When I saw my teammates see space for the first time and watch them look out the windows…I prepared them for their first [spacewalk] — and how protective I felt and how emotional it was to see them come out to hatch. I had difficulty doing the work. I went from window to window looking at them to make sure they were okay.

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