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NASA names the date for the first commercial crew demo flight

But will there be any 'nauts left on the ISS after AI bot CIMON has finished with them?

A resumption of crewed flights from US soil has inched closer after NASA named a date for SpaceX's Demo-1. But the latest Delta IV Heavy remains firmly earthbound following the second and latest abort.

First SpaceX commercial crew demo now 17 January. Maybe

The date of the first commercial crew flight to the International Space Station (ISS) continues to skip around like a toddler needing the toilet.

After NASA Administrator James Bridenstine stomped down hard on hopes of the first SpaceX demo launch occurring on 7 January, leading many to look later in the spring for a launch date, NASA's Commercial Crew Program's mouthpiece said that, er, no. It'll be 17 January.

The range will be clear, and the cargo variant of the Dragon spacecraft will be back on Earth from SpaceX's 16th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission so, well, why the heck not?

The Demo-1 mission will see SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft sent to the ISS to shake down the systems, test out autonomous docking and check out the landing profile before astronauts get shoved into the thing as part of Demo-2.

An inflight abort test will also be performed between Demo-1 and Demo-2 to prove that SpaceX can do what the Russians have been able to accomplish for decades – whisk a capsule away from an exploding booster.

Cautious as ever, NASA was at pains to say that the launch would be governed by data rather than arbitrary dates and Kathy Lueders of the agency's Commercial Crew Program said: "We still have more work to do as the certification process, hardware development and readiness reviews continue."

However, booking a date with the Eastern Range shows progress is being made.

Secondhand Dragon arrives with ISS supplies

Three days after launching, and 8 years since the first test launch of a Dragon spacecraft, SpaceX's reusable freighter was captured and bolted to the side of the ISS.

This particular Dragon had last visited the ISS back in February 2017.

The berthing had been delayed slightly by communication issues, but having been grabbed by the station's Canadarm2, the Dragon will remain attached to the ISS before returning to Earth just before SpaceX's first commercial crew demo flight.

The Dragon arrived laden with science and crew supplies, including the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI), which will be mounted outside the Japanese lab to provide high-resolution observations of forest vertical structure via laser ranging. Our favourite experiment, however, remains Robotic Refuelling Mission 3 (RRM3) which will demonstrate refuelling techniques aimed at longer duration missions.

The Dragon remains the only spacecraft able to bring any meaningful amount of cargo back from the ISS, and is scheduled to splash down with 4,000 pounds of science and hardware loaded up on orbit.

Drama at the Delta IV

A Delta IV Heavy due to fling a secretive optical imaging satellite into orbit for the US's National Reconnaissance Office was scrubbed with just 7 seconds to go. The rocket, due to launch at 0415 GMT on 9 December, had been scrubbed earlier due to an issue with a redundant communication link between the control centre and the launch site.

After a 24 hour turnaround, United Launch Alliance (ULA) were good to go again, and this time things went well for the heavy-lift beast. Alas, it was not to be – at the point of ignition (and with flames licking up the site of the monster rocket) the call to hold was made and the launch aborted as automated systems detected an anomaly and shut things down.

ULA has yet to provide a date for when it will try again.

The Delta IV Heavy consists of three Common Booster Cores strapped together and has the second largest payload capacity of any operating rocket, behind only the Falcon Heavy. Unlike the Falcon Heavy's solitary flight earlier this year, the Delta IV Heavy has notched up 10 launches since its introduction in 2004. While the majority of payloads have been classified, the Delta IV Heavy has been used to loft NASAs Orion capsule on an orbital test flight and the Parker Solar Probe back in August.

ESA's most flown 'naut and the passive-aggressive AI

Alexander Gerst holds the record for the longest time in orbit by a European astronaut, and is due to return to Earth for Christmas. He will probably be taking a bit longer to make sure that the ISS's needy AI hasn't hitched a ride with him.

The Crew Interactive Mobile Companion (or CIMON) is a beachball-sized robot that floats around the interior of the ISS. The Ubuntu-powered 'bot features a screen to show a vaguely creepy smiling face, or instructions for the 'nauts to follow.

The hope is that CIMON will be more of a colleague than an irritating floating Alexa-like device, and engineers were excited to record Gerst's first interactions with his new pal.

Youtube Video

It all began so well, with CIMON manoeuvring itself (himself?) according to Gerst's instructions and giving instructions on procedures for onboard experiments. The 'naut then had a crack at some social interactions and, alas, things began to go a bit downhill.

After being asked to play Gerst's favourite song, CIMON began blasting out some Kraftwerk ("The Man-Machine") to which the 'naut dutifully jiggled in micro-gravity. After a swift shake of the bot and an instruction to stop, Gerst was ready to move on. But CIMON was having none of it, telling the confused 'naut it loved music and that more hits were incoming.

Despite more shaking from Gerst, CIMON remained fixated on music and sunk sadly to the deck of the ISS as the veteran space-flyer complained to engineers on the ground.

"Be nice, please," the bot said quietly, before things got more sinister as CIMON asked "Don't you like it here with me?" While Gerst continued to interact with engineers, the creepy floating head remonstrated with him: "Don't be so mean, please" before suggesting that maybe a snack might be in order.

A needy, passive-aggressive AI assistant. Just what every astronaut has been dreaming of. ®

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