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SpaceX is getting ready to launch their first crewed mission aboard the updated Crew Dragon spacecraft. The Demo-2 mission will launch NASA Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station (ISS) under a contract with the agency's Commercial Crew Program. SpaceX is expected to return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States of America. NASA has not executed manned flights to space from American soil ever since the shuttle was grounded in 2011. The agency has been relying on Russian rocket launch services to transport astronauts to the orbiting laboratory for nearly a decade. NASA and SpaceX shared in a statement today (March 18) that they are targeting "no earlier than mid-to-late May" to conduct the Demo-2 mission. NASA stated:
"This mission will be the return of human spaceflight launch capabilities to the United States and the first launch of American astronauts aboard an American rocket and spacecraft since the final space shuttle mission on July 8, 2011."
During the upcoming Demo-2 mission, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket will liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida carrying the Dragon spacecraft on its first crewed voyage to space. "This second demonstration mission of the Crew Dragon spacecraft is another end-to-end flight test of SpaceX’s human spaceflight system, which will include launch, docking, splashdown and recovery operations," NASA said in the statement released this afternoon, "It is the final flight test of the system before SpaceX is certified to carry out operational crew flights to and from the space station for NASA." If the Demo-2 mission proves successful, SpaceX will officially be certified to launch humans to space.
In 2019, the first demonstration mission, Demo-1, was an uncrewed flight to the space station that demonstrated SpaceX's technology is reliable to fly astronauts. That day, Dragon docked autonomously to the station; no other spacecraft in history has achieved that level of autonomy. SpaceX also performed a successful safety test that involved testing Dragon's launch escape system during an In-Flight Abort (IFA) test that took place in January. IFA test demonstrated the spacecraft's capability to escape danger if a rocket malfunctions mid-air. Dragon is ready to take flight and is undergoing final pre-flight preparations. Agency officials had previously mentioned that May 7th was a potential target date for the mission, now they are targeting mid-to-late may. SpaceX announced via Twitter:
"SpaceX and NASA are targeting no earlier than mid-to-late May for Crew Dragon’s launch with two NASA Astronauts on board."
It is unclear if the Demo-2 mission could be delayed in the future due to the current Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, that has already spread across the globe. In today's media release, NASA wrote:
"NASA is proactively monitoring the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation as it evolves. The agency will continue to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the agency’s chief health and medical officer and communicate any updates that may impact mission."
Coronavirus concerns have even forced the agency to limit contact with astronauts who will launch aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon, to avoid putting their health and the Demo-2 mission in jeopardy. They are taking all protective measures to ensure that Astronauts Hurley and Behnken stay healthy. Josh Finch, a spokesperson at NASA headquarters in Washington D.C, told Business Insider: "The health and welfare of the crew is always paramount. […] Currently evaluating changes to the health stabilization plan due to the coronavirus," and shared that NASA is actively "limiting contact with crew [astronauts] members."
Due to the Coronavirus outbreak, NASA closed down all visitor and launch complex centers to the public, and recently moved all of its facilities to follow a "Stage 3" protocol, this mandates that all staff work from home via computers, unless they are required to show up to the office for vital mission assignments. The NASA Ames facility in California has been escalated to "Stage 4," because of the 'shelter-in-place' order by local authorities in which everyone is advised to work from home.