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SpaceX launch this week could end NASA astronaut’s nearly 15-year wait to get to space

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps has had to get comfy in three different spacecraft seats, but while she said she would have fit in any of them, it’s the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour set to lift off this week that ended up being the one that was just right.

Chosen as one of nine NASA astronaut candidates in 2009, all of her classmates have flown to space. Epps had previously been assigned to both a Soyuz mission and a Boeing CST-100 Starliner mission to the ISS, but after a reassignment took her off the Soyuz trip and delays piled up on Boeing’s Starliner program, Epps was finally shifted to the SpaceX Crew-8 mission.

“I guess any launch is a great launch if you have a mission. So even though you’re the last, it doesn’t matter. You get that launch, you get the mission and you go,” she said after arriving Sunday to KSC with her crewmates. “You know they always save the best for last.”

Now nearly 15 years later, she’s set to finally get to space atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 from KSC’s Launch Pad 39-A at 12:04 a.m. Thursday.

“I’ve been deep in thought about what all is about to happen to us, the crew and what we’re going to go do,” she said. “It is overwhelming to me how many people have contributed to this. So I just want to thank everyone … who has helped propel us to space.”

Epps will be one of three space rookies flying along with fellow NASA astronaut and mission commander Matthew Dominick and Roscosmos cosmonaut and mission specialist Alexander Grebenkin. The pilot for the mission, NASA’s Michael Barratt, is the only frequent flyer having been to the ISS twice before, first on a Soyuz in 2009 and then on the final flight of Space Shuttle Discovery in 2011.

Dominick, who was chosen as an astronaut candidate in 2017, is also among the last of his class to fly to space.

“Do we rib our classmates? Yes. It’s an important part of the culture,” he said. “That stuff doesn’t matter as much. Our job here in the astronaut office is just as important as we get a ground job. You go to space, you get experience doing that. You can bring that back and give back to the office in many ways. I’m just as excited to fly as I am to come back and do my ground job and contribute to the office and move human spaceflight forward.”

The quartet looks to relieve the Crew-7 astronauts who have been on board the ISS since last August. With Endeavour, Crew-8 are flying on SpaceX’s most traveled Crew Dragon, the one that first took Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS on the Demo-2 mission in 2020, marking the first return by NASA to human spaceflight from the U.S. since the end of the space shuttle program.

Endeavour has already logged more than 466 days in space having flown once a year since Demo-2, with Crew-2 in 2021, the first Axiom Space mission Ax-1 in 2022 and Crew-6 in 2023.

The four members of Crew-8 will bring to 50 the number of humans who have flown on its fleet of four Crew Dragon spacecraft, with only one repeat flyer among the 50.

SpaceX’s frequency was in part pushed by delays from Boeing, its fellow partner in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Starliner and Dragon were supposed to share one launch each a year to the ISS.

At one point, Epps was assigned to be on what would have been Starliner’s first rotational crew mission — Starliner-1, which was originally targeting flight in 2021, but now won’t fly until at least 2025. Had that been on schedule, Epps would have been the first Black woman to make a long-term stay on the ISS. With Starliner’s delay, though, that milestone ended up going to Jessica Watkins on the Crew-4 mission in 2022.

“I’m very grateful for this flight,” Epps said. “I’ve trained for Soyuz. I’ve trained for Boeing. I’ve trained for a lot of vehicles, but I am honored to fly with this crew on the Dragon Endeavor.”

Epps and her crewmates, though, are expected to actually welcome the first Starliner flight with crew on board while on orbit. The Crew Flight Test launching from Cape Canaveral on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is scheduled to bring up two NASA astronauts on its test flight as early as mid-April for a short stay at the ISS. If successful, it would pave the way for the Starliner-1 mission to finally take on its planned shared crew flight duties next year.

Veteran astronaut Barratt, who with Dragon is set to fly on his third different spacecraft, said he and the others were likely to try out the seats of Starliner and other spacecraft when they arrive.

“There’s no guards posted to the gates,” he joked.

While there, in addition to potentially welcoming Starliner in April, they will be on station for the arrival of fellow NASA astronaut Tracy Dyson coming up to the station as early as March 21 as part of a three-person Soyuz crew. Their stay on board could also see the first flight of Sierra Space’s new cargo spacecraft the Dream Chaser.

“There’s just huge curiosity amongst us,” Barratt said. “So everybody will want to know every cubic centimeter of our stack volume, and that includes the docked ships. And of course, some of them, we’ve got to unload and reload.”

The Crew-8 members will become part of Expedition 70 on the ISS when they arrive, and then continue on into Expedition 71 with an expected stay on board until the end of August when they are relieved by SpaceX Crew-9. They will have their hands on about 200 experiments in science and technology research over the six-month stay.

Original plans of a mid-February launch were pushed because the launch site, KSC’s Launch Pad 39-A, was the only place from which the recent Intuitive Machines lunar lander mission was able to fly That in turn was limited by a previous Falcon Heavy launch that needed the same pad.

“It’s been absolutely incredible to watch spaceflight explode here at the Cape,” Dominick said as he marveled that the constraint for flight isn’t a lack of rockets, but the availability of a launch pad. “There’s stiff competition to get out there to 39-A.”

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