SpaceX’s astronaut launch will mark a milestone for commercial spaceflight

For the first time, humans are
poised to hurtle into Earth’s orbit on a commercial rocket.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is set to launch at 3:22 p.m. EDT from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on May 30, to take U.S. astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station (ISS). The launch was originally scheduled for May 27, but was scrubbed due to bad weather less than 17 minutes before lift-off time.

Astronauts have not launched
to orbit from the United States since 2011, when NASA’s space shuttle program ended (SN: 6/3/11). Since then, the Russian Soyuz
spacecraft have been the only way for astronauts of any nationality to reach
the ISS. (The Chinese space agency has its own rockets and crew vehicles, and
had its own space station for a time, but is not a partner in the ISS.)

The launch will mark an
important transition in crewed space travel for NASA, shifting the government space
agency from having complete control over U.S. launches to being just another
customer of a private space flight company. That shift should end the U.S.
space agency’s reliance on Russia, though, and free NASA to focus on more
complicated missions, such as sending humans to the moon and Mars.

“The reason you have NASA is
to push the envelope, do things at the frontier,” says astrophysicist Jonathan
McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.
“Low-Earth orbit and the space station are no longer the frontier. So you just
hire a trucking company.”

In 2014, NASA partnered with
private companies SpaceX and Boeing to develop new flight technology to bring
astronauts into orbit and back. SpaceX is also working on a heavy lift rocket that may eventually be capable of taking humans to Mars (SN: 2/6/18).

In some ways, this shift is
a natural evolution, McDowell says. NASA has hired private companies, including
SpaceX, to launch satellites for years, and private manufacturing has been part
of spacecraft development since the 1950s. But human space exploration has
higher stakes.

“It has a much higher public
profile, and much worse consequences, if things go wrong. So NASA has been
understandably reluctant to take its hands off the wheel,” McDowell says. “It
has been a big attitude shift within NASA to get this far. But I think it is
the right time to do it.”

NASA provided funding and
technical oversight to SpaceX in the development of the Crew Dragon. “What
we’re doing is unlike anything we’ve done before,” NASA administrator Jim
Bridenstine said in a NASA TV broadcast May 27. “We are not purchasing, owning
and operating the hardware, we’re turning to commercial industry…. We’re really
revolutionizing how we do spaceflight.”

Financially, this was a good
deal for the agency, according to an analysis by the Planetary Society published May 19. NASA’s portion of the Crew Dragon
development came to about $1.7 billion over the last nine years, far cheaper
than every other crewed spacecraft project in the space agency’s history. For
instance, NASA spent $2.7 billion (adjusted for inflation) developing the
Mercury spacecraft, the first human spaceflight program in the United States, from
1959 to 1961. The development of the space shuttle program cost $24.7 billion.

Before the planned launch, SpaceX
and NASA ran the Crew Dragon spacecraft through a battery of tests, especially
of the thruster system. An accident involving that system destroyed an uncrewed
Dragon spacecraft in April 2019, pushing back the planned launch schedule. That
explosion was likely caused by a propellant leak.  

Preflight testing also included
flight simulations for the astronauts and 27 tests of the parachute system,
used to help the capsule carrying returning astronauts back to Earth set down
safely. That’s fewer parachute tests than normal, NASA associate administrator
Steve Jurczyk said in a May 22 news briefing. But he has “high confidence that
they will function as we need them to when Bob and Doug return.”

Crew Dragon’s parachute test
On May 1, SpaceX tested the Crew Dragon’s parachutes. It was the 27th test of the system, which will help the capsule make a safe landing when it brings astronauts back from the space station. While this test was over land, SpaceX expects to bring the spacecraft down in the ocean.SpaceX

Called Demo-2, the planned May 30 launch and flight will be the ultimate test of the spacecraft’s systems and its ability to ferry a crew into orbit.

This mission has a neat
resonance for the astronauts, who have both flown on two space shuttle missions
— and especially for Hurley, who was on the final flight of the space shuttle
in July of 2011.

“It’s a great honor to be
part of this mission,” Hurley said in a May
1 news briefing
. His excitement is
tempered by a sense of responsibility. “You just want to be methodical about
everything you do,” he said. “This is the first flight of a vehicle, and we
want to make sure we’ve chased down everything we need to.”

Hurley and Behnken spent the
two weeks before launch in quarantine to ensure that they don’t bring any
infections or illnesses to the ISS, including the new coronavirus. That’s standard practice that was in place before the spread of COVID-19,
says NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz.

NASA adhered to
recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on
infection control for the coronavirus before the astronauts went into
quarantine, she adds. That included “cleaning of surfaces, social distancing,
emphasizing hand hygiene, encouraging NASA team members who are sick to stay
home and limiting contact with crew members.” The astronauts have also been
tested at least twice for COVID-19.

NASA maintains a pharmacy
onboard the space station, and has plans in place to sequester astronauts from
their crewmates if anyone does get sick. There are no plans to send coronavirus
tests to the space station.

The coronavirus pandemic
also means that the Kennedy Space Center is closed to the general public. But before
the May 27 launch was scrubbed, crowds had gathered along nearby beaches and
roads to watch the lift-off.

Once in orbit, the astronauts
will test the spacecraft’s environmental control systems, the displays and the
maneuvering thrusters. The spacecraft is designed to dock with the space
station automatically, but the crew can take over manually if necessary.

If all goes to schedule, the
astronauts will reach the space station on the morning of May 31. The mission
won’t be considered over until the astronauts return in the same Crew Dragon
capsule after a yet-to-be-determined amount of time, probably between one and
three months.

Once the craft is certified
to be safe and operational, Crew Dragons will carry up to four astronauts to
the ISS at a time on NASA missions. NASA hopes that the new transportation will
help boost human presence on the ISS, and continue research that can be done only
in space.

For his part, Behnken is
excited to be launching from the Florida coast again, which was routine when he
and Hurley joined the NASA astronaut corps in 2000. “Generations of people, who
maybe didn’t get a chance to see a space shuttle launch, getting a chance again
to see human spaceflight from our own backyard, if you will, is pretty exciting
to be a part of,” he said.

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