WASHINGTON — NASA is postponing the next commercial crew mission to the International Space Station for nearly a month after the Falcon 9 booster to be launched was damaged in transit across the country for testing.
NASA announced on July 21 that the Crew-5 mission is now scheduled no earlier than September 29, having previously been scheduled for early September. The spacecraft will carry NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata and Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina to the station.
The revised launch date, NASA said in the statement, “will allow SpaceX to complete hardware processing.” Crew-5 will now arrive at the ISS after a Soyuz crew transfer in mid-September, when the Soyuz MS-22 arrives with Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio. Soyuz MS-21 returns with Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Sergey Korsakov and Denis Matveev.
Crew-5’s launch will use a new Falcon 9 booster, a relatively rare occurrence given SpaceX’s extensive reuse of boosters. NASA said in a statement that SpaceX had to remove the rocket’s intermediate stage — the section between the booster and the top stage — and some instrumentation after they were damaged in transit from the SpaceX plant in Hawthorne, Calif., to the test site for the booster in McGregor, Texas.
SpaceX conducted inspections and tests of the booster to confirm damage was limited to the interspace, work NASA said it was assessing. The booster will now undergo regular testing at McGregor prior to certification for the flight.
Neither SpaceX nor NASA have disclosed when the booster was damaged. During a July 13 prelaunch briefing for the CRS-25 Cargo Dragon mission to the station, NASA ISS deputy program manager Dana Weigel said they still planned to launch Crew-5 in early September.
However, at a July 20 briefing on the Artemis 1 mission, NASA officials said the launch had slipped. That mission has three possible launch dates of August 29, September 2, and September 5, raising questions about potential conflicts with Crew-5’s launch in early September.
“Before Crew-5 slipped, we worked closely with them,” Jim Free, associate administrator for reconnaissance systems development, said of talks with the commercial crew program about coordinating launches. “When we go at the end of September, we’re going to put the same into practice.”
Ironically, NASA has become increasingly comfortable flying astronauts on repurposed Falcon 9 boosters and Crew Dragon spacecraft. The Crew-4 mission launched to the station in April used a Falcon 9 booster making its fourth flight.
“Because both NASA and SpaceX have had experience working together and SpaceX has accumulated a flight history on both the Falcon 9 booster and the Dragon capsule, NASA has thought carefully about reuse and their reuse certification process,” said Sandra Magnus, a member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, at a panel meeting on July 21.
“As a result, NASA has determined that they are comfortable with up to five times reuse for both the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon capsule,” she said.