SpaceX is poised to ignite a new era of human spaceflight this week when its Crew Dragon capsule carries two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). The Demo-2 test flight is scheduled for 3:22 p.m. ET on May 30 after a launch attempt was scrubbed on May 27 due to weather. The mission marks the first time in nearly a decade that a crewed journey into space will lift off from a launch pad in the United States—and the first time a private spaceflight company has used its own rocket and spacecraft design to fling humans into orbit.
(For subscribers: A brief history of human spaceflight–1961 to present)
“SpaceX has been an amazing partner of NASA for many years, including resupply of the International Space Station, and soon, with providing crew,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a recent call with reporters. “This is a very exciting time.”
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, NASA is urging spectators to stay home and watch the event remotely. The launch, carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, will be livestreamed by NASA and SpaceX, and you can watch live coverage of the historic mission by ABC News and National Geographic beginning at 3 p.m. ET on May 30.
Like all launches to space, liftoff could be delayed by factors such as weather or mechanical issues. If the launch attempt on May 30 is scrubbed, SpaceX and NASA will try again on May 31, with tentative backup launch attempts also planned for June 2 and June 3.
Two shuttle veterans return to the ISS
The Demo-2 mission is slated to lift off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A—the same pad in Florida that hosted Apollo 11 and STS-135, the last flight of a space shuttle. However, next week's mission represents a new way of getting humans to orbit, in which agencies including NASA purchase rides to space from private companies.
For astronauts Hurley, 53, and Behnken, 49, the Demo-2 flight also presents a rare opportunity: to be the first people to fly in a new type of spacecraft. Behnken and Hurley were specially selected for NASA’s commercial crew program back in 2015. Both men are former military test pilots—Hurley in the Marines and Behnken in the Air Force. Both are married to fellow astronauts, and the two have been colleagues since joining NASA in 2000 as part of Astronaut Group 18.
“It’s probably a dream of every test pilot school student to have the opportunity to fly on a brand-new spaceship, and I’m lucky enough to get that opportunity with my good friend here,” Behnken said recently at a press conference with Hurley.
Both astronauts helped deliver portions of the ISS to orbit on previous missions, including modules with life support systems and science laboratories, and a two-armed robot called Dextre used for repairs. But Demo-2 is only the fifth time in U.S. history that astronauts will launch on a brand-new vehicle. “We did it in Mercury, Gemini, Apollo; we did it with the space shuttles; and now we’re going to do it with a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule,” Bridenstine said.
During a call with reporters, the astronauts described how they worked with SpaceX to help design and refine the sleek interior of the Crew Dragon—which boasts touch screen control panels rather than the joysticks, buttons, and knobs that covered every inch of the space shuttle cockpit.
A veteran of two space shuttle flights and six spacewalks, Behnken will be responsible for rendezvous, docking, and undocking the Crew Dragon with the ISS. Hurley, the commander of the Demo-2 mission, piloted two shuttle flights, including the final launch of the space shuttle, STS-135, in July 2011.
“I happen to have been one of the four astronauts that landed here [at Kennedy Space Center] almost nine years ago … to close out the space shuttle program,” Hurley said after arriving at the space center on Wednesday. “It's incredibly humbling to be here to start out the next launch from the United States.”
A unique stay aboard the space station
After the close of the shuttle era, NASA developed partnerships with private spaceflight companies to launch astronauts to the ISS, and the agency began buying seats on Russian spacecraft until the commercial U.S. vehicles were ready to fly. In 2014, NASA contracted two companies to design, build, and launch spacecraft into low-Earth orbit: Boeing, with a contract worth $4.2 billion, and SpaceX, with a contract for $2.6 billion.
“This really is the next major step in commercializing low-Earth orbit and having a really vital low-Earth orbit economy in which NASA is one of many customers,” says Kirk Shireman, NASA’s ISS program manager. “This launch is our next step toward increasing American, and really human, presence on board the laboratory.”
Next week’s launch is the second demonstration flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. During the vehicle’s first orbital test flight in March 2019, a capsule without any astronauts aboard briefly docked with the ISS and then returned to Earth, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. Next week, Behnken and Hurley will fly another Crew Dragon to the space station.
Once at the ISS, the two astronauts will stay for an undetermined amount of time between one month and 110 days, to assist the three astronauts already on board with scientific research. NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy is currently aboard the ISS, along with Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, awaiting the arrival of Hurley and Behnken. When Crew Dragon returns to Earth with the Demo-2 astronauts, it will parachute into the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Canaveral.
“My heart is sitting right here,” Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said as she pointed to her throat during a press conference ahead of the launch. “I think it’s going to stay here until we get Bob and Doug safely back from the International Space Station.”
Hurley, the mission commander, says he’s mostly looking forward to revisiting the orbital station he helped build—and one spot in particular: the cupola, a glass-paneled dome that offers expansive, inspiring views of Earth from above.