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NASA prepares Dragon capsule for first reuse with astronauts

The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft, which is scheduled to fly again in April, is recovered in the Gulf of Mexico on August 2. Photo courtesy of NASA
The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft, which is scheduled to fly again in April, is recovered in the Gulf of Mexico on August 2. Photo courtesy of NASA | License Photo

ORLANDO, Fla., March 3 (UPI) -- NASA is preparing for the first time to reuse a SpaceX Dragon capsule, the Endeavor, on a crewed mission in April.

The capsule previously took astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station in May. The upcoming Crew 2 mission is planned for launch no earlier than April 20 from Kennedy Space Center.

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NASA gave a detailed update this week about the capsule's refurbishment for a second crewed flight. The launch in April also will be the first time a crewed mission uses a previously flown Falcon 9 booster.

NASA's process to recertify a previously flown capsule, along with upgrades made by SpaceX, gives the space agency confidence, Steve Stich, manager of NASA's commercial crew program, said Monday during a press conference.

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The capsule as refurbished includes some new components, Stich said, such as parachutes and a heat shield.

SpaceX also has boosted the amount of fuel available if the mission must be aborted during an emergency on the launch pad, or just after liftoff, he said.

The rocket and capsule "were designed with reuse in mind, like the space shuttle was designed for a certain number of flights," Stich said.

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"We really look at every part of the vehicle ... So overall, I don't really see any high risk in reuse, because we've gone through a methodical process and we've checked the components getting reinstalled," Stich said.

Stich noted that SpaceX designed the current Falcon 9 model to be flown 10 times with minimal refurbishment, and already has done that eight times with a single rocket booster.

NASA has selected two U.S. astronauts for the mission, Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, along with Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet. They will stay aboard the space station for about six months.

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McArthur will be flying in the same capsule, and likely the same seat, as her husband, Behnken.

"He's been there along the way to give me some pointers and feedback and things to look out for. And it's been really great having his advice along the way," McArthur said at the press conference.

The biggest concern for reusing a Dragon capsule is water intrusion, Benji Reed, SpaceX's senior director for human spaceflight, said during the conference.

That's because the Dragon splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico depending on the weather at sea. Saltwater is highly corrosive, Reed noted.

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"So we do everything we can to prevent water intrusion," he said.

SpaceX also removed titanium from parts of the engines, as a precaution following the explosion of a Dragon capsule during a test firing in 2019 after recovery from an uncrewed splashdown.

NASA and SpaceX had found that titanium in the engines was responsible for that explosion as it had reacted violently with nitrogen tetroxide in the Dragon's propellant. The titanium was replaced with stainless steel, Stich said.

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