The Japanese space agency (JAXA) has announced that one of its astronauts will fly on the first operational launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, possibly by the end of 2020.
In a brief statement JAXA said astronaut Soichi Noguchi had been selected for the mission, noting he was “currently preparing and training” for the flight, which will take him to the International Space Station (ISS) for six months.
California-based SpaceX is expected to launch its first test flight of Crew Dragon with humans on board in May this year, although preparations are being hampered somewhat by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The test flight known as the Demo-2 mission will launch two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will become the first humans to launch to orbit form U.S. soil since the final flight of the Space Shuttle in July 2011.
SpaceX is under contract with NASA to fly multiple missions to the ISS for the foreseeable future. While a date for the first operational mission with Noguchi on board has not been set, it will be the next flight after the Demo-2 mission.
NASA has paid SpaceX, and its competitor Boeing, billions of dollars to begin transporting humans to the ISS. Boeing, however, has been hit by multiple delays to its CST-100 Starliner vehicle – exacerbated by a troubled test flight in December 2019.
SpaceX, on the other hand, has made considerable strides with Crew Dragon. The spacecraft reached the ISS on an uncrewed test flight in March 2019, while Houston-based Axiom Space has paid for an all-private Crew Dragon mission, which will take four paying space tourists to the ISS in the latter half of 2021.
Noguchi’s mission is thus expected later in 2020 or early 2021, depending on delays. NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover have also been confirmed for the mission so far. Crew Dragon can seat up to seven, but NASA is only initially considering crews of four.
This will be Noguchi’s third flight to space, having flown on Space Shuttle Columbia in 2005, and to the ISS on a Soyuz vehicle in June 2010 – making him one of a handful of astronauts that will have flown on three separate spacecraft.
He is not the first person from Japan to be signed up for a SpaceX mission, however. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has already paid an undisclosed sum to travel around the Moon on SpaceX’s upcoming Starship vehicle later this decade.