SpaceX readies first astronaut launch by private firm

Wednesday’s mission would be the first from U.S. soil in nearly a decade, and seeks to reset space exploration

Photo: NASA Retired Marine Col. Doug Hurley (L) will be in charge of launch and landing while Air Force Col. Bob Behnken will oversee rendezvous and docking at the ISS

In mere hours SpaceX is scheduled to launch two NASA astronauts into orbit  - weather permitting - to kick off a new era of corporate-driven space missions. No company has ever flown commercially developed hardware carrying humans and linked up with the International Space Station (ISS). If Space Exploration Technologies Corp. reaches that goal, it will mark a major shift in the country’s space endeavors, being the first human launch from US soil since 2011.

It would also represent a long-awaited milestone for NASA and a resounding achievement for the company.

At 4:33 p.m. ET, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are scheduled to lift off from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida. They will be making the trip to space aboard SpaceX's Dragon crew capsule, the first time astronauts have ever traveled to the station aboard a private spaceship.

Hours before the planned launch, Hurley and Behnken suited up as they spoke for a few minutes with NASA chief Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. The duo bid a brief goodbye to their families and proceeded to the pad in Tesla Model X electric cars. After riding the elevator to the top of the launch structure and walking across a connecting arm, the two were being strapped into the Dragon capsule.

"This is a dream come true, I think for me and for everyone at SpaceX," Musk said, adding: "I didn't even dream this would come true."

The Dragon capsule resembles the cone-shaped spacecraft of earlier generations, with some snazzy updates, such as a gleaming white exterior and, on the inside, touchscreen control panels. It will sit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket  the company's workhorse launch vehicle that has successfully flown 83 times since 2010.

To some observers, the setup may look retrograde compared to the enormous space shuttle, which could fly back to Earth on wings.

"We do think of winged vehicles landing like an airplane, as something that was more futuristic than a capsule on top of a rocket," says Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator and CEO of Earthrise Alliance, an educational nonprofit.

But the capsule design has considerable safety advantages. Unlike the shuttle, it sits on top of the rocket, therefore avoiding debris that can fall off during launch - a problem that doomed the Space Shuttle Columbia in a 2003 launch. The position also makes it easy to eject the capsule if the rocket itself runs into trouble.

"These are safer systems," Garver says.

That's not to say that SpaceX hasn't had safety hurdles to overcome. In 2015, one of its uncrewed rockets exploded on the way to the space station. An accident review panel later concluded the failure was caused by a steel eyebolt that broke off inside the vehicle. In April 2019, a crew capsule exploded during a test of its launch abort rockets. An accident investigation concluded that a highly reactive oxidizer had leaked into a part of the rocket motors it was not supposed to be in.

Still, SpaceX has a good record overall. It has been flying cargo capsules to the space station since 2012, and the timeline for Wednesday's launch looks very similar to those earlier missions.

Hurley, 53, and Behnken, 49, will board the spacecraft about two hours before liftoff. The hatch will be sealed and the astronauts strapped in. Then, with about a half-hour to go, the Falcon 9 rocket will be fueled with liquid oxygen and kerosene. After launch, it will take around 12 minutes for the astronauts to get into orbit, and around 18 hours to reach ISS. The first stage of the Falcon 9, meanwhile, will reenter Earth's atmosphere and attempt to land on a floating drone ship.

The duo will remain in space for between one and four months before climbing back aboard the capsule and returning to Earth. The Dragon capsule will splash down in the Atlantic Ocean using four parachutes - the first time a water landing has been made by astronauts since the Apollo era.

For Garver, who was at NASA when the shuttle touched down for the last time, a successful launch will mark a new era for America in space. She says she thinks that NASA's programs have been hindered by politics and bureaucracy.

"The space program has been held back by trying to do things to keep jobs in certain [congressional] districts," Garver says. Turning part of the spaceflight mission over to private companies like SpaceX "is going to allow us hopefully to break out of that, and to have a better future."

Bridenstine says he hopes the launch will bring people together.

"That's what these launches can do," he says. "It's not going to just unite Republicans and Democrats, it's going to unite the world."

Similar articles