The launch comes as NASA and Russia continue to investigate what caused two Russian spacecraft — one designed for human spaceflight, the other for cargo only — to spring oddly similar coolant leaks within a couple of months of each other while attached to the space station. Russia launched a replacement capsule to the station on Thursday that is to retrieve a pair of Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut. That capsule docked Saturday evening.
Since May 2020, when it sent a pair of NASA astronauts in a test flight to the station, SpaceX has flown a series of human spaceflight missions that have included professionally trained astronauts representing their governments as well as several private citizens.
In 2014, when NASA awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to design and build spacecraft to fly NASA’s astronauts to the orbiting outpost, most in the aerospace community thought Boeing would fly first. But it hasn’t gone that way.
While SpaceX has continued to provide a reliable service of crew and cargo to the station, Boeing has struggled to get off the ground. But Boeing hopes it will finally launch its first crew in a test flight to the station as early as April. That would give NASA two providers, and a backup in case of company falters — a point driven home recently by the Russian spacecraft leaks.
The launch of Crew-6 — which includes NASA astronauts Stephen Bowen and Warren Hoburg, United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Alneyadi and Russian cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev — comes just two days after the Russian replacement spacecraft arrived at the station. Last month, Russia decided that its Soyuz MS-22 capsule was unsafe to return its crew to Earth after it sprang a coolant leak from a radiator loop. Another Russian spacecraft, this one designed for cargo only, not astronauts, also suffered a similar leak. Engineers from NASA and Russia are continuing to investigate what caused the problems.
Speaking to reporters late Saturday, Dana Weigel, NASA’s space station deputy program manager, said that “it’s still an ongoing assessment. They’re still taking a really close look at all the information they have on both spacecraft to try to understand if there’s any common cause or anything else that could have been a causal factor and having those two radiator panel leaks.”
She added that Russian officials at Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, “are sharing the information with us.” Roscosmos also did another set of inspections of the rescue spacecraft launched last week to retrieve NASA astronaut Frank Rubio as well as Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin. “They inspected it,” she said. “They looked at the radiators, the solar arrays, and they couldn’t find anything at all anomalous. But that doesn’t mean they’re done investigating.”
While Boeing is still pushing toward its first human spaceflight mission with its Starliner spacecraft, SpaceX has sped ahead, launching a number of crews to orbit, as it continues a brisk and unparalleled cadence that included 61 orbital launches last year, most of them for its Starlink internet satellite constellation. This year, the company says it is pushing for as many as 100 flights.
“But above all, the priority is the crew flights and crew safety,” said Benji Reed, SpaceX’s senior director of human spaceflight programs. “And also meeting our obligations to ensure the crew rotation on the space station. That will always take precedence over any of the other flights.”
The company is now gearing up to launch Starship, its massive, fully reusable two-stage rocket, which would become the most powerful ever to fly. The Starship launch, which is still awaiting approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, could come as early as next month from the company’s facility in South Texas on the Gulf of Mexico.
NASA will be watching to see how the vehicle performs. The space agency is investing $2.9 billion in the vehicle and intends to use it to ferry astronauts to and from the surface of the moon as part of its Artemis program.