Featured Image Source: SpaceX
NASA and SpaceX will launch astronauts from American soil for the first time in nearly a decade. The agency has not launched crewed flights ever since the Space Shuttle fleet was grounded in July 2011. NASA has been launching astronauts to the International Space Station aboard Russian spacecraft for the past years. SpaceX will ignite a new era in American spaceflight where astronauts launch on American-made rockets. All thanks to a partnership the agency and SpaceX formed under a Commercial Crew Program contract valued at $3.1 billion, to develop the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Dragon is capable of carrying seven passengers aboard. In 2019 during its first uncrewed demonstration mission, Demo-1, it became the first American spacecraft in history capable of docking autonomously to the orbiting laboratory. It is a huge accomplishment for SpaceX because it demonstrated Dragon could successfully transport astronauts to the space station one day. SpaceX engineers have been conducting a series of tests to ensure that Crew Dragon is safe before launching any humans on board. Dragon features the capability to escape danger, it has eight SuperDraco engines that are automatically ignited if a rocket malfunctions in-flight. In January, an In-Flight Abort test demonstrated the spacecraft's capacity to save astronauts lives in the event of an emergency escape.
The first crewed flight will be the second demonstration mission, referred to as Demo-2. “As the final flight test for SpaceX, this mission will validate the company’s crew transportation system, including the launch pad, rocket, spacecraft, and operational capabilities. This also will be the first time NASA astronauts will test the spacecraft systems in orbit.” Today, April 17, the agency announced when the historic mission will take place:
“NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will fly on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, lifting off on a Falcon 9 rocket at 4:32 p.m. EDT May 27, from Launch Complex 39A in Florida, for an extended stay at the space station for the Demo-2 mission. The specific duration of the mission is to be determined.”
The mission will take place during a time when the United States truly needs inspiration, due to the Coronavirus pandemic that has paralyzed the entire country. This launch is expected to bring back the excitement of crewed rocket flights to an entire new generation!
Falcon 9 will launch from historic Pad 39A the same launch pad from where astronauts launched during the Apollo moon missions. Space Shuttle missions also launched from the same launch complex. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine shared his excitement by sharing a commemorative video via Twitter (video below).
BREAKING: On May 27, @NASA will once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil! With our @SpaceX partners, @Astro_Doug and @AstroBehnken will launch to the @Space_Station on the #CrewDragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket. Let's #LaunchAmerica 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/RINb3mfRWI— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) April 17, 2020
Astronaut Behnken and Hurley have been training, they recently practiced escaping from the launch pad’s tower at the Kennedy Space Center, with NASA’s Emergency Egress system that involves escaping the tower by riding slide-wire baskets to the ground. NASA shared today, “Behnken will be the joint operations commander for the mission, responsible for activities such as rendezvous, docking and undocking, as well as Demo-2 activities while the spacecraft is docked to the space station.” And “Hurley will be the spacecraft commander for Demo-2, responsible for activities such as launch, landing and recovery.”
Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Source: NASA
NASA says the Falcon 9 rocket is “specially instrumented” to carry-out the Demo-2 mission. They even added NASA's retro "worm" logo to represent a return in crewed flights (pictured above). Once Falcon 9 takes Dragon into orbit, the astronauts will accelerate to approximately 17,000 miles per hour to reach the space station. Then, Dragon will dock autonomously to the station, “Astronauts aboard the spacecraft and the station will be diligently monitoring approach and docking and can take control of the spacecraft if necessary,” the agency says. NASA has not yet determined how long the mission will last. It is likely Behnken and Hurley will stay a couple of months at the ISS lab.“Although the Crew Dragon being used for this flight test can stay in orbit about 110 days, the specific mission duration will be determined once on station based on the readiness of the next commercial crew launch. The operational Crew Dragon spacecraft will be capable of staying in orbit for at least 210 days as a NASA requirement,” the agency wrote.
Crew Dragon awaits debut flight. Source: NASA
Once the mission concludes, Dragon will return from space with both astronauts aboard. It will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere to conduct a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will be the first time SpaceX recovery teams will recover a spacecraft with humans on-board. The company does have almost a decade of experience in successfully recovering cargo capsules at sea which carried vital science experiments, including live mice.
The Demo-2 mission will be the final major demonstration flight before NASA’s Commercial Crew Program certifies Crew Dragon to conduct operational missions to the space station. SpaceX will return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States of America!