SpaceX is gearing up for its most important mission yet. After years of development and testing, Elon Musk’s private spaceflight firm will fly its first crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has announced the official launch date of May 27, 2020. This will mark the first time in almost a decade that American astronauts head into space aboard an American spacecraft.
NASA awarded SpaceX and Boeing contracts in 2014 to provide crew launch services. SpaceX opted to use the Dragon II, a tweaked version of its already successful cargo vessel. Meanwhile, Boeing began developing the CST-100 Starliner, a new spacecraft based loosely on the Apollo-era command module. Despite getting almost twice as much funding ($4.2 billion vs $2.6 billion), Boeing has fallen behind SpaceX in the race to return America to space.
SpaceX successfully completed its uncrewed test flight last year, known as Demo-1. The Dragon capsule launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, docked autonomously at the ISS, and then splashed-down safely on Earth. The company experienced an explosive failure during subsequent ground testing, which set back plans to proceed with the crewed Demo-2 mission. SpaceX has now rectified that issue to NASA’s satisfaction. However, Boeing is in a tough spot.
It was unclear which company would be first to launch with a crew through late 2019, but then Boeing had its disastrous Demo-1 flight. The CST-100 suffered multiple computer errors that caused it to end up in the wrong orbit, missing the ISS rendezvous entirely. Boeing recently confirmed it would refly the mission, but that won’t happen until fall 2020. That left SpaceX in the lead.
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
On May 27th, NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will become the first people to climb aboard the Crew Dragon and ride it into space. The current plan calls for Demo-2 to launch from Launch Complex 39A in Florida around 4:32 PM, weather permitting. The Falcon 9 launch platform will even sport the agency’s classic “worm” logo. The duration of the mission has yet to be determined, but it won’t be a typical ISS transport situation. Following Demo-2, Behnken and Hurley will board the Dragon and return to Earth. Future missions will use the Dragon to get new crew members to the ISS and return astronauts who have completed their tours aboard the ISS to Earth.
With this step forward, NASA can finally stop relying on expensive seats on Russian Soyuz capsules for access to space. NASA should be well-equipped to continue its human spaceflight projects when the Starliner is available later this year or in early 2021. Work also continues on the Space Launch System, which will support the Artemis program to return humans to the moon.
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