After one of its Falcon 9 rockets exploded on the launch pad last September, SpaceX sprinted to get back on track, and achieved a successful comeback launch in mid-January. To deal with the backlog of launches delayed by the accident, the company set an ambitious schedule of liftoffs every two to three weeks. The first of these, they announced today, will be an ISS resupply mission using one of their Dragon capsules set to fly on February 18th.
Targeting Feb. 18 for Dragon's next resupply mission to the@Space_Station — our 1st launch from LC-39A at @NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) February 8, 2017
The shipment will include tons of supplies and equipment, including an instrument to monitor the ozone layer from outside the space station. But unlike the comeback launch, which lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the resupply mission will hopefully be the first to launch from pad LC-39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
The pad is likely key to meeting their rapid launch schedule after their previous Florida site at Cape Canaveral is still undergoing repairs after the September failure. Future liftoffs are planned for the new pad, including a commercial satellite launch for Echostar that was bumped up to late February to fit in the ISS resupply mission.
NASA says the ISS' inflatable module is doing great
It's been almost six months since the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was attached to the ISS, and NASA now has some early data to share. According to BEAM Manager Steve Munday, it's been doing well and performing as expected after the installation hiccup that prevented it from unfolding the first time. To start with, NASA Langley scientists didn't find any sign of large debris impact that could affect the module's ability to protect inhabitants. The folks over at NASA's Johnson Space Center didn't detect abnormally high radiation levels inside the habitat, as well -- in fact, it exhibited levels similar to the rest of the space station's.
In addition, it was warmer than expected (though still quite cold) inside the module, probably because its layers provide more insulation than Bigelow Aerospace scientists thought they would. That's not an issue, though, since its designers were actually aiming for a warm interior. "A colder-than-expected BEAM would have increased the risk of condensation," Munday explained, "so we were pleased when Jeff first opened the hatch and found the interior to be bone dry."
Munday was talking about Jeff Williams, one of the most experienced NASA astronauts and one of the first two people who stepped foot inside the module. See, the plan is for ISS crew members to enter the habitat and check on its condition 67 or so times a year within its two-year test period. Williams and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka collected air sample and downloaded data from all the sensors inside back in June.
While the results sound promising, it's too early to tell whether Bigelow Aerospace's dream of deploying large inflatable space stations to Low Earth Orbit is feasible. If you'll recall, the private space corp teamed up with United Launch Alliance to develop expandable modules larger than BEAM that can orbit the Earth on their own. If the partners succeed, the stations will be much cheaper to launch than similarly sized rigid structures, since they can be folded inside their carriers. As Munday said, BEAM is the first of its kind. The scientists involved are still learning, and they'll no doubt incorporate changes to the technology as they learn more about the expandable habitat.
NASA may rely on Russian shuttles for ISS missions until 2019
NASA is considering buying seats aboard the Soyuz spacecraft for 2019, according to a solicitation it filed recently. The agency originally wanted to end its dependence on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft this year, but SpaceX and Boeing aren't quite ready to take astronauts to the ISS. Boeing had topush back its first manned flight to the space station to December 2018 or later due to a design flaw with the Starliner. SpaceX also had to delay its plans after a Falcon 9 exploded on the launch pad last year. While both companies could very well be able to stick to their new timelines, NASA could be eyeing the purchase as an insurance in case of additional delays. Besides, seats on the Soyuz keep getting more expensive every year.
According to the filing, the seats NASA is looking at belong to Boeing, which got them from a lawsuit against Russian aerospace company Energia. Boeing VP John Elbon revealed that NASA "expressed some interest" and that the two entities will "go through the process and figure out if there's an opportunity for [them] to make a deal." Ars Technica also notes that the solicitation was filed shortly before NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a proponent of commercial space, leaves office.
In addition to the seats aboard flights scheduled for 2019, NASA is also looking to purchase two more for 2017 and 2018. Since Russia is reducing its ISS personnel, there's an extra space for a NASA astronaut on the spacecraft.