Earlier this month we saw one group of astronauts bid farewell to our pandemic planet and dock aboard the International Space Station (ISS), and another group return to a very different planet than the one they left. Now NASA and SpaceX have revealed the launch date for the historic next group of astronauts traveling to the space station. On May 27 at 4.32pm EDT (8.32pm UTC), NASA’s Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will captain SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket in a truly momentous trip. Not only will this become the first crewed rocket mission by a private company, but it will also be the first time a crew will travel to orbit from American soil since the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in 2011.
Lifting off from the historic launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, Crew Dragon will accelerate its two passengers to approximately 24,600 kilometers per hour (17,000 miles per hour) before docking at the space station in the following 24 hours. The duration of their stay is yet to be confirmed.
Over the last nine years, NASA has relied on Russia and its Soyuz rockets to transport its crew into orbit, which, when priced at $80 million per seat, is a costly decision. The Demo-2 Mission, as it is known, is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), an approach to bring commercial transportation to and from the ISS back to the US.
SpaceX and Boeing have been competing to produce the next generation spacecraft. Whilst Boeing’s Starliner capsule ran into problems on a test flight last December, which also left the crew on the ISS without any Christmas presents, SpaceX’s Dragon Crew Capsule passed its massive hurdle in January after mannequins onboard a test flight safely escaped a simulated disaster.
NASA says that the crewed mission itself will be the final flight test for SpaceX, and will “validate the company’s crew transportation system, including the launch pad, rocket, spacecraft, and operational capabilities.”
“What’s happening in commercial crew is a big deal,” Michael Hess, manager of Operations Integration for the CCP, said in a statement at the end of March. “It will be the first time to launch astronauts from US soil since the end of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, and it will be the first time since STS-1 that we will launch astronauts in a new spacecraft. This new spacecraft, Crew Dragon, was designed and built by SpaceX, not by NASA and traditional contractor partnerships — another first.”
Onboard this all-American affair are experienced astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley. Both selected as astronauts back in 2000, they have also both flown aboard two Space Shuttle Missions, Hurley on the very last one – STS-135. Over the last few months, they have also been practicing procedures from inside a realistic simulator of Crew Dragon. Although Covid-19 has seen some of NASA’s employees get to grips with working from home, the Demo-2 mission has proceeded with its scheduled training activities.