Next month, NASA will launch its first astronaut mission from U.S. soil in almost a decade. This mission marks the final test for SpaceX before NASA begins regularly ferrying astronauts into orbit using the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.
“BREAKING: On May 27, @NASA will once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil!” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted Friday.
On that day, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will travel to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre. Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the event will not be open to the public, and access to nearby viewing sites could also be curtailed if Florida officials extend the state’s currently stay-at-home order. As a precaution, NASA told Business Insider earlier this month that it was “limiting contact with crew members” ahead of the launch in addition to other routine health safeguards, which includes a two-week quarantine. As for how long they’ll be up there, the agency is still mulling that over.
Since shuttering its Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has relied on Russia’s space program to ferry American astronauts to the station—a space taxi service that’s cost roughly $US3.4 ($5) billion over the last nine years. Upon the success of next month’s mission, NASA will transition to relying on SpaceX’s spacecraft to do the job as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.
“This certification and regular operation of Crew Dragon will enable NASA to continue the important research and technology investigations taking place onboard the station, which benefits people on Earth and lays the groundwork for future exploration of the Moon and Mars…” NASA wrote in a Friday press release.
Next month’s launch is a highly anticipated step forward for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which has faced several delays over the last decade. SpaceX and Boeing, another contender NASA chose for the public-private initiative, received contracts worth $US2.6 ($4) billion and $US4.2 ($7) billion respectively in 2014, but both companies have faced “significant safety and technical challenges” with the project since, per CNN. However, several botched liftoffs, failed tests, and trashed prototypes later, SpaceX’s future prospects with NASA seem hopeful.