SpaceX sets date for next CRS mission as Orbital makes long-term plans

Falcon 9 CRS-2 hot fire

The Falcon 9 carrying the Dragon spacecraft for the CRS-2 (aka SpX-2) mission during an engine test last year. The next SpaceX cargo mission to the ISS, CRS-3/SpX-3, is now scheduled for launch March 17. (credit: SpaceX)

The long-awaited third SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) finally has a firm launch date. The Falcon 9 launch of the Dragon cargo spacecraft on a mission designed CRS-3 by SpaceX (and SpX-3 by NASA) is now scheduled for 4:41 am EDT (0841 GMT) Sunday, March 16 from Cape Canaveral, according to a NASA media advisory published Friday. The mission had previously been scheduled for February 22, but was delayed for unspecified reasons; the new launch date was selected based on “SpaceX readiness, splashdown dates and station activities,” a NASA spokesman told Space News. The mission’s date had been slipping for some time, largely due to launches ahead of the SpX-3 mission and SpaceX work on getting the v1.1 version of the Falcon 9 flying.

The revised date means it will be a little more than a year since the previous SpaceX CRS mission, CRS-2/SpX-2, which launched on March 1, 2013. Since then, Orbital Sciences Corporation has successfully flown its Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS on a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration mission last September, and its first CRS mission, Orb-1, last month.

The Orb-1 Cygnus is still berthed to the ISS. Bill Claybaugh, senior director of human space systems at Orbital, said at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington on Wednesday that this Cygnus is scheduled to be unberthed from the ISS on February 18, and will reenter one day later. The second Orbital CRS mission, Orb-2, is scheduled for launch May 1, carrying an estimated 1,633 kilograms of cargo to the ISS, Claybaugh said. That will be followed by Orb-3 in October and Orb-4 in January 2015.

Orbital’s current CRS contract is for eight Cygnus missions, currently scheduled into 2016. With ISS current slated to operate to at least 2020, and with the Obama Administration’s announcement of its desire to extend ISS operations to at least 2024, Claybaugh said Orbital is preparing for potential additional CRS missions. “We are already buying long-lead hardware required for those additional missions, and that’s being done at our risk,” he said, since NASA hasn’t announced plans for extending, or recompeting, the current CRS contracts.

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