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Crew 6’s Return: Reflecting on a Record Setting Mission

The launch of Crew 6 as seen from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building.
Credit: Astrid Cordero

As SpaceX’s Crew – 7 gears up for launch in August, 2023 – the crew of the sixth rotation mission to the International Space Station are wrapping up a record setting, history-making long duration segment. 

Commander Stephen Bowen and Pilot Woody Hoburg.
Credit: SpaceX

Commanded by Stephen Bowen, a four time spaceflight veteran who flew on STS-126, STS-132 and STS-133 before Crew-6, the mission lifted off from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on March 2, 2023 – docking to the orbital laboratory on the 3rd of March. Warren “Woody” Hoburg, making his first spaceflight, acting as pilot. Hoburg is notably one of the cadre of “Artemis Astronauts”, crewmembers preselected by NASA for future lunar missions. As is becoming increasingly customary with Commercial Crew operations, Hoburg and Bowen were joined by two international astronauts – Sultan Al Neyadi of the UAE’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre and Andrey Fedyaev of the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos. Al Neyadi’s long duration mission is the first long duration mission for the Middle East – with further missions planned for later ISS segments. This crew sharing agreement that began with Roscosmos’ Anna Kikina on SpaceX’s Crew-5 and NASA’s Frank Rubio on Soyuz MS-22 continues the recent crew-swaps, with American astronauts flying from Baikonur. This ensures both countries have a presence on the station, and the ability to maintain their separate systems if either Soyuz or commercial crew vehicles are grounded for an extended period – as is standard for ISS operations.

Mission Specialist Sultan Al Neyadi.
Credit: SpaceX

Crew-6 has seen a flurry of activity as part of Expeditions 68, 69 and will ultimately oversee the transition into Expedition 70. Prior to launch, there were concerns about the filling of seats on Dragon due to the coolant issue observed on Soyuz MS-22, however, Roscosmos elected to press forward with launching MS-23 uncrewed, ensuring lifeboat capability for all 7 crew members onboard. As part of their expeditions, the crew continued to upgrade systems onboard the Station including life support, water reclamation and power. iRosa installation continued as part of a planned overhaul to ISS power systems. On April 28th, 2023, Al Neyadi became the first Arab astronaut to conduct a spacewalk in support of station power systems. 

Mission Specialist Andrey Fedyaev.
Credit: SpaceX

Crew-7, the next American crew launch to the station, is currently slated to head to orbit the morning of August 21st, 2023. The crews of Crew-6 and Crew-7 will conduct what is known as a direct handover, in which two crews will occupy the station to brief the new arrivals on operational procedure, and prepare the station for the next long duration segment. As is standard with ISS operations, Expedition 70 will begin officially with the undocking of Soyuz MS-23, which is scheduled for September, 2023. Dragon Endeavour, a veteran of Demo-2, Crew-2 and Axiom Mission 1, will undock from the Harmony module on the forward end of the station, and begin the multi hour deorbit sequence. Once Endeavour has exited the keep out sphere, it will conduct a series of phasing burns to bring its orbit inside the Earth’s atmosphere. After re-entry, Dragon will deploy a series of parachutes to reduce its speed to just 20 miles per hour. After splashdown, Dragon will be brought onboard one of two recovery ships, placed in the “Nest” – a specially designed cradle to support crew unloading operations. After unloading, the international crew will be brought back to Houston for their debrief. 

SpaceX’s Dragon remains, as of time of writing, the United States’ only access to Low Earth Orbit – which is poised to change as soon as Boeing’s Starliner conducts the Crew Flight Test – certifying it for flight. SpaceX crew rotation flights are scheduled as far out as Crew-14, with intermediate flights in support of other programs.  

Edited by David Diebold.

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