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Commercial Crew: LEO and Lunar, Dragon and Artemis

19 Apr 2021 7:00 PM | Brett Bennett (Administrator)

It’s been an eventful week, with key achievements coming from NASA and its industry partners for mission profiles from low-Earth orbit to Mars. Today, we start with congratulations for the teams at JPL and NASA for their incredible success in the first powered, off-Earth flight using Ingenuity and the Perseverance rover system. A true Wright Brothers moment, this achievement demonstrates the avenues for technology development used to redefine exploration systems for human and robotics missions.

Key enabling technologies like Ingenuity have continued to provide for the advancement of sustained human presence in LEO and at the lunar surface. Work by commercial launch providers in the development of advanced human flight systems follow this trend, including continued development of Boeing’s Starliner and the Starship system by SpaceX. Importantly, this development is occurring in the context of Artemis, through which NASA is leading an international partnership to complete a crewed return to the lunar surface and achieve a sustained presence on and around the moon. Alongside long-term lunar research, commerce, and exploration, this set of missions will enable a continuing focus on the development of methods for Mars exploration. NASA needs a crewed lander to make this possible, and last week announced the selection of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle as Artemis’s Human Landing System component. Lunar Starship will operate in conjunction with SLS/Orion, Gateway, and surface transportation systems to complete the Artemis complement.

SpaceX Starship human lander design, slated to carry the first NASA astronauts to the Moon as part of Artemis. SpaceX, 2021.

But before achieving a crewed lunar landing in the 2020s, industry’s focus remains squarely on operations near Earth. Thanks to the legacy of the ISS in spaceflight experience and data generation, NASA and its industrial partners continue to benefit from the opportunity to perform science in the context of human missions. Following the success of Crew-1 in mid-November 2020, the Commercial Crew program continues to support ISS crew operations with SpaceX’s Crew-2 mission, scheduled for launch later this week.

A foundational component of commercial crew is the support of microgravity research as afforded by innovative commercial flight platforms like SpaceX’s Dragon. NASA this week spotlighted the science of Crew-2 and discussed how Dragon and its crew can provide science capabilities not previously available with other ISS-oriented architectures. NASA science administrators focus on the following innovations for crewed science initiatives in Commercial Crew.

  • The previous limiting factor for breadth of science has been crew time for data collection; Dragon provided double crew contact time with research relative to the existing ISS complement of 3 crew

  • Within human research, "standard measures" require different mission durations to sufficiently address the variables presented by changes in the human body; Dragon provides this flexibility in mission timeline

  • Better science can be performed with improved access to launch and landing sites due to the reduction in time from lab to flight; Dragon provides this access

  • Dragon provides 2-3x the scientific payload capacity than previous crew vehicles

NASA also provided specific examples of the development horizon for scientific initiatives in LEO. Citing the goal of a robust and sustainable market for LEO science and it’s partnership with the ISS National Lab, NIH and NSF, NASA provided an example of science as performed directly by crew.

  • Tissue engineering for the development of clinical applications and pharmaceuticals

  • Microgravity's role in tissue engineering development: Alterations in cell communication help control for gravity, while cell aggregation mimics the in vivo environment

  • Current applications include a 3D bioprinter, tissue chips,  and tissue recellularization

Other examples of ongoing work include Target’s sponsorship of improved cotton cultivars, Colgate's focus on biofilm research, and Boeing’s partnership with students to study microgravity genetic expression.

Pre-launch preparations for Crew-2, with capsule Endeavor being readied for flight to the ISS under Commercial Crew. SpaceX, 2021.

Advancements in human spaceflight will continue to draw on expertise in medicine, science, engineering, and business, and Artemis and Commercial Crew will provide the means for this advancement.  Ingenuity's success on Mars shows the outcomes of this approach.

ASP’s membership shares a mission to develop the next generation of spaceflight professionals and to provide the means for achievement of key milestones in human spaceflight. To support professional development in this way, ASP continues to advance a spectrum of funding facilitation and professional opportunities.

Learn more about ASP’s work here.

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