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NASA’s SpaceX Crew-3 Mission at the International Space Station

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NASA and SpaceX began their third crew rotation mission to the International Space Station with the launch of the Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft on Nov. 10.

At approximately 9:03 p.m. EST, the spacecraft lifted off atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. By Nov. 11 at approximately 6:32 p.m. EST, the crew had arrived at the International Space Station — less than 24 hours after their spacecraft’s launch. Upon arrival, they were greeted by the Expedition 66 crew, who have been at the station since October of this year. 

Consisting of four members, Crew-3 encompasses NASA astronauts Kayla Barron, Thomas Marshburn, Raja Chari and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer

Chari, the commander of the spacecraft, is responsible for every phase of the spaceflight, which includes the initial launch and the reentry into Earth’s orbit. Marshburn, the pilot and second-in-command of this mission, overlooks the engine systems on Endurance and its performance. Barron and Maurer, both mission specialists, are working closely with the commander and pilot to monitor their spacecraft during the launch and will do so once more with their return to Earth.

As the third joint mission between NASA and SpaceX, this crew rotation mission continues the agenda of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and aims to deliver its goal “of safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from the International Space Station from the United States.” Partnerships between the government agency and American private industry are facilitated to understand and overcome challenges that may arise in long-duration space flights.

At UCI, the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering within UCI’s Samueli School of Engineering has been a part of the growing community focusing on research involving such flight systems used among rockets and airplanes. 

Laboratories like the Aeronautics, Dynamics and Control Laboratory, for instance, are assessing the linearly uncontrollable motions of a spacecraft in order to compare such motions to that of an airplane. Since spacecrafts can be controlled even when gas jets are removed during their flights to space, airplane flight dynamics possess the same ability. Comparing one occurrence to another allows for practical engineering applications to technology used on a daily basis. 

Onboard the International Space Station, the Crew-3 astronauts will be conducting research in various areas of science and technology. One of their projects involves food physiology in spaceflight diets and its impact on an astronaut’s health. 

During a spaceflight, both the regulation of the immune system and the gut bacteria that aid in metabolic functions and protection against pathogens are altered. As researchers have discovered, this change is not solely dependent on an astronaut’s adaptation to space but is also dependent on the diet they follow during their prolonged stay as well. 

Through a continuous study carried out by principal investigator Grace Douglas, an evaluation on spaceflight duration and effects on diet nutrient intake has already taken place. 

Each member undergoes a consultation to enhance their diet by 25% with a selection of particular fruits and vegetables, with samples from the blood, urine and saliva of crew members being obtained at times before, during or after their flights. Tracking their food intake each day, some of Douglas’ findings have shown that diets affect the health of astronauts. As research on this continues, these insights may also be applicable to people on Earth as well.  

Another region of research Crew-3 is focusing on are spaceflight standard measures, or collections of measurements that relate to human spaceflight risks that may arise before, during or after their long-duration missions. 

Another continuous study, led by principal investigator Gilles Clement, carries out a more complex analysis that obtains these measurements through psychological and physiological means. 

With the combination of 10 brief tests that include visual object learning, memory, attention and emotion recognition, these factors are examined as responses to risk-filled situations. Through the progression of this study, researchers hope to better understand the body’s response to a stressor in space, which may also be applied to similar responses among humans on Earth. 

Crew-3 will remain at the International Space Station for six months, until their expected return in April 2022. 

To watch the launch, read more about the Crew-3 mission, or receive updates on the mission and astronauts involved, visit NASA’s website.


Korintia Espinoza is a STEM Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at korintie@uci.edu.