SpaceX Crew-8 launches after tense discovery of crack on hatch seal

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — Overcoming concerns about a small crack in the hatch, SpaceX launched another four passengers on their way to the International Space Station late Sunday from Florida’s Space Coast.

About 30 minutes before liftoff, SpaceX mission control alerted the crew to a potential problem.

“We saw a small crack on the side hatch seal at the top of the hatch,” mission control reported. “The main concern is reentry heating soaking through a damaged seal.”

But just over 10 minutes before launch, mission control updated, “We are confident that we understand the issue, and we can still fly the whole mission safely.”

The gap created by the crack in the seal, which was determined to be about 0.2 inches, was expected to close as the material swells on reentry, SpaceX said, adding that it was in a place that won’t be as stressed upon return to Earth.

“The engineering team here is comfortable proceeding,” SpaceX noted in a statement. After the launch, NASA weighed in on who has the final call on whether or not to launch.

“Absolutely NASA has the authority to stop the launch and if we see a course of action that we don’t necessarily think is right,” said NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich. “The clock is counting but you know, we could have backed out at any point on down inside of in a minute.”

With the OK to go, the Crew-8 mission proceeded, sending three NASA astronauts and one Roscosmos cosmonaut aboard the Crew Dragon Endeavour that launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket from KSC’s Launch Pad 39-A at 10:53 p.m. The rocket carved its way up through the night sky amid the pinpoint lights of the Big Dipper as a backdrop.

At liftoff, the roar of the engines rumbled off the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, setting off car alarms at KSC’s press site. As the rocket climbed higher, its plume created an eerie, billowing, multicolor jellyfish nebula.

The first-stage booster returned eight minutes after launch for a landing at nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, pounding out a sonic boom that echoed across the space center, set off even more car alarms and sparked the din of birds calling out in the distance.

With the launch, it marks 50 humans to have flown to space among SpaceX’s four Crew Dragon spacecraft, with only one repeat flyer among the 50.

On board for NASA are commander Matthew Dominick, pilot Michael Barratt and mission specialist Jeanette Epps along with Russia’s mission specialist Alexander Grebenkin. They weren’t scheduled to rendezvous with the ISS until around 3 a.m. Tuesday, after which the quartet will become part of Expedition 70 to begin about a six-month stay. The team will work on more than 200 science and technology experiments.

Before the final go for launch, NASA commentators interviewed NASA Administrator Bill Nelson asking him about safety.

“You’re dealing with a very unforgiving environment with a lot of explosive power, and you’re defying the laws of gravity, and as a result, everything has to be right,” he said. “So you don’t launch until it’s right.”

Once Dragon made it to space, the crew and SpaceX mission control exchanged thank-you's.

SpaceX mission control said, “It truly is our greatest honor for you to trust us to launch you into space. It’s been a pleasure working with you. And we trust that all the science and work you’re about to do will continue to move humanity further toward the stars. We hope you enjoy the ride and thank you for flying a Falcon 9. Please send our regards to Crew-7 and make sure to remind them you just wanted to be fashionably late.”

“SpaceX, Oh my goodness. What an incredible ride to orbit,” Dominick said.

“It’s kind of like a roller coaster ride with a bunch of really excited teenagers,” Barrett said.

“I am in a New York state of mind right now. It is amazing,” said Epps, who was born in Syracuse, N.Y.

The crew revealed its zero-G indicator was a stuffed family dog, the idea of Dominick’s daughter to “represent the sacrifices that children everywhere make while their parents are stepping away,” he said.

The launch came after bad weather on the launch ascent corridor took three chances off the table, including a Saturday night attempt during which the crew suited up and were ready to walk out for their ride to the launch pad before teams called it off.

For Sunday, though, weather conditions improved throughout the night and the astronauts repeated their suit-up activities at the Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout Building, made their farewells to families and NASA officials and then climbed into the fleet of black Teslas, with license plates that read “YAYSP8C” that took them to the launch pad.

With just over three hours before launch, the quartet rode past the Vehicle Assembly Building on the road out to the pad, after which they ascended the launch tower elevator two at a time to walk out along the crew access arm and climb aboard Endeavour.

With T-2 hours, 40 minutes, the four were seated in the spacecraft ahead of hatch closure with teams performing com checks, suit leak checks and ensuring the seats could rotate. Teams spent extra time to ensure safe hatch closure with under two hours to go before launch before the crew access arm moved away from the rocket.

Once closed in for the ride, SpaceX mission control jokingly passed along a message to Dominick saying, “Just don’t break anything.”

Endeavour was the first Crew Dragon to ferry passengers when it launched on the Demo-2 mission in May 2020 carrying up astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

This marks its fifth flight to have also flown on Crew-2, Crew-6 and the first private mission to the ISS for Axiom Space.

“It’s our fleet leader,” said Stich. “So we’ve taken a lot of extra time … to go through all of the systems.”

Crew-8 will relieve the four members of Crew-7 that have been on station since last August and won’t attempt a return to Earth until likely at least March 11. One of its crew took to social media to joke about the delays.

“More like Crew-L8. When are you getting here already?” posted the European Space Agency’s Andreas Mogensen.

“We are some of the lucky few right now who BOTH know where you sleep AND can get to you shortly … ,” replied Dominick.

Three of the four members of Crew-8 are rookies, with only Barratt, who flew on both a Soyuz mission in 2009 and the last Space Shuttle Discovery mission in 2011, with previous spaceflight experience.

“I can’t wait to fly this new spaceship, and I can’t wait to fly with this crew,” Barratt said when the quartet arrived to KSC last Sunday, noting it had been 13 years and one day since he flew on Discovery’s STS-133.

“Two more flights and our shuttle program was done. Most of us were hoping that there would be an overlap, not a big gap. But we did have a gap and when we came down here to watch Discovery be carted away from here, Kennedy Space Center was very quiet,” he said about when the shuttle was taken away to be put on display at the Smithsonian.

The space shuttle program ran from 1981-2011, flying 135 missions carrying 355 crew, with many making multiple flights.

“It was so empty compared to what we were all used to for all this time,” he said. “We were all pretty sure that KSC was going to come back. But we had no idea how much. I would say KSC has come back with a vengeance.”

Once in space, Barrett paid homage to the bigger NASA community, which he said was “a warm but steely eyed family that does amazing things. It kind of hugs you but it pushes you into the unknown while watching your back. It’s really been an incredible place for me to grow over these past 30-plus years. And now I’m really honored to fly in this new generation spaceship with this new generation crew.”

The mission is actually the 13th Crew Dragon flight with humans on board, although only the ninth flight for NASA as part of the Commercial Crew Program. The other four human spaceflights have been private missions for Axiom Space for short visits to the ISS plus the orbital flight Inspiration4 for billionaire Jared Isaacman.

Only former astronaut and now Axiom Space employee Michael Lopez-Alegria, who flew on both Ax-1 and the Ax-3 mission that launched in January, has made the Dragon flight twice among the 50 passengers.

SpaceX has three more Dragon flights planned this year, including Crew-9 as early as August and the fourth Axiom Space mission as early as October, plus another flight for Isaacman on the Polaris Dawn mission that could fly this summer.

Meanwhile, the other company in the Commercial Crew Program, Boeing, is finally set to catch up to SpaceX with its first crewed test flight launching as soon as April 22 from Cape Canaveral. NASA’s goal was to have two active spaceflight providers to guarantee access to the ISS.

The five Dragon flights plus Starliner means 22 astronauts could make it to space from the U.S. this year, the most since 2009, when the space shuttle program was still flourishing.

“It almost seems routine to the uneducated eye that SpaceX is putting them up one after another,” said Nelson earlier this week. “You never want to get to the frame of mind that it is so routine that it’s like getting in your car and taking a Sunday afternoon drive.”