SpaceX’s Crew Dragon astronaut taxi is doing “beautifully” so far in its first operational, long-duration stay on the International Space Station, NASA’s human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders told The Verge. The capsule, named Resilience, sent three NASA astronauts and a Japanese astronaut to the station last November, and a trivial housekeeping task is the only unexpected hiccup faced by the crew.
“We’ve been very, very happy with how things are going,” Lueders said in an interview. “The only minor thing we had was we’re getting some little bits of lint on the seal” where Crew Dragon connects to the ISS, she added. Astronauts have been floating in and out of the spacecraft for months, leaving behind a buildup of lint and dust.
SpaceX launched the Crew-1 mission on November 15th carrying Commander Mike Hopkins, pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialists Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi, a Japanese astronaut. The mission marked SpaceX’s first fully operational mission under its NASA contract after nailing its final test milestone last summer with the launch and return of two US astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
Some extra dust is definitely not the worst problem NASA and SpaceX could face on a $100 billion orbital laboratory that has housed astronauts in low Earth orbit for over 20 years. “I can handle having housekeeping issues,” Lueders said. Astronauts have been using a vacuum to suck out all the lint, but for a longer-term fix to the pileup, a tiny cover was trucked to the station on the NS15 cargo resupply mission, launched Saturday by Northrop Grumman.
NASA and SpaceX have been closely monitoring Crew Dragon’s health in space as it tallies 98 days docked to the ISS — the longest duration for a human-rated US spacecraft. Perhaps most intimately familiar with the capsule is Hopkins, who’s been using Crew Dragon as his bunking quarters while others sleep elsewhere on the station. (Lueders made clear that Hopkins wasn’t solely to blame for all the dust — “don’t make me get in trouble with Mike Hopkins, Joey!”)
SpaceX’s next mission, Crew-2, is slated for April 20th, reusing the capsule that flew Behnken and Hurley for the DM-2 mission. NASA decided to allow SpaceX to reuse its capsules for astronaut flights last year, setting the stage for a rigorous refurbishment and certification process for SpaceX. It’s similar to what the agency will go through with Boeing’s Starliner, Crew Dragon’s rival capsule that’s still in development.
That refurb process will take place in Florida, where the company used to refurbish its old Cargo Dragon vehicles. Lueders said SpaceX engineers call their Kennedy Space Center refurbishment facilities “Dragonland.” SpaceX has already added infrastructure for Crew Dragon refurbishment. One crew capsule already went through the pipeline: in January, SpaceX re-flew the Crew Dragon it launched in 2019 (without any astronauts) as a cargo ship.
NASA still needs a backup seat
Even though Crew Dragon Resilience is doing well on the ISS, and the upcoming Crew-2 launch is on schedule for April, NASA still wants to have a backup plan. The station’s other three crew members are two Russian cosmonauts and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, who are due to return to Earth in April on the same Soyuz capsule they rode in on last year. If the Crew-2 spacecraft runs into problems before its April flight, NASA will need another option to get an astronaut to the ISS. Otherwise, they risk leaving the station with no NASA crew members for the first time since the station was first occupied in 2000.
The agency announced earlier this month that it’s seeking another seat on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft as a safety net. The Verge reported that NASA was in talks with space infrastructure startup Axiom Space to book that Soyuz seat, instead of buying directly from the Russians — only the second time in the decades-long NASA-Russia relationship to do so.
Lueders said the US company (without specifically naming Axiom, because the talks were ongoing) reached out to NASA with its own proposal and offered the backup solution. So, as a legal formality, NASA issued a notice saying it’s looking to buy a Soyuz seat because — as Lueders put it — “one of our commercial providers out there said ‘Hey, there’s a commercial opportunity for me here,’ so they gave us an unsolicited proposal.”
Axiom’s chief executive, Michael Suffredini, co-founded the Houston-based company in 2016 after spending 10 years as NASA’s ISS program manager. It’s unclear whether Axiom had already owned the Soyuz seat it’s selling to NASA or whether the Houston-based company is currently going through the process with Roscosmos to buy it. Roscosmos (Russia’s space agency) and Axiom both declined to comment.
No matter the arrangement, the dealmaking and seat swapping is poised to give NASA the assurance it needs to keep a US astronaut on the ISS. NASA and the State Department are “in the final stages” of coming up with an agreement with Roscosmos to fly Russian cosmonauts on future flights of SpaceX’s or Boeing’s capsules in exchange for flying more US astronauts on Soyuz spacecraft, Lueders said. Nailing that agreement has been a yearslong process.
“We were hoping it would happen a little bit sooner, and so unfortunately it wasn’t happening in time for the April Soyuz seat,” Lueders said. That delay gave Axiom a chance to make a deal.
“If you said, ‘Kathy, what’s your logistics dream?’ I would say every vehicle going up to the ISS needs to have a US crew member on it, and we believe every US vehicle going up to have a Russian crew member on it,” Lueders said.