ORLANDO, Fla. — NASA and SpaceX have set a date.
The first launch of astronauts from American soil in nearly a decade is scheduled to take off on May 27 at 4:32 p.m. Eastern time from Kennedy Space Center’s launch complex 39A.
The highly anticipated mission will take NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon astronaut capsule and the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, outfitted with NASA’s “worm” logo to commemorate the milestone.
The mission is the first test flight to carry crew. Another unpiloted test mission in March 2019 successfully took the capsule to the space station, helping clear the way for SpaceX to become the first of the two commercial providers NASA partnered with to perform the flight with crew onboard.
The taxpayer-funded program, called Commercial Crew, has been in development since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. The objective was to give the U.S. the capability to launch astronauts regularly on commercial rockets for a significantly lower cost than the alternative.
For the past decade, NASA astronauts have been launching on Russian Soyuz rockets for about $80 million a seat.
NASA partnered with SpaceX and Boeing to develop capsules that could accomplish the feat, but the program has suffered more than two years of delays. SpaceX was awarded $2.6 billion to develop Crew Dragon, while Boeing got $4.2 billion for its CST-100 Starliner.
Most recently, Boeing’s unpiloted test flight uncovered numerous testing errors that have set the company back. It will have to fly a second test mission without astronauts on board before it can launch with a crew.
SpaceX has had its own delays. In April 2019, the company experienced an explosion during a test of Crew Dragon’s engines that led to the loss of a vehicle. No one was hurt. The crewed mission, which was initially expected to happen in 2019, slipped to this year.
Since, Elon Musk’s rocket company has successfully run 26 tests of its upgraded parachute system to certify it for a crewed launch, as well as numerous simulations and an in-flight abort test.
Earlier this month, SpaceX and NASA participated in a practice emergency exercise, demonstrating crew and support teams could evacuate from the 265-foot-level of the launch tower in the case of an emergency before liftoff.
For the May mission, Falcon 9 will carry Behnken and Hurley to a rendezvous with the station, where they will remain before climbing back into Crew Dragon and landing in the Atlantic Ocean under parachutes.
Hurley, who flew on the final shuttle mission aboard Atlantis in 2011, will be making history twice.
“Since (the end of the shuttle) it’s kind of felt like, trying to get us back to a point where the United States could fly humans in space again,” Hurley said last year prior to the unmanned test flight. “I kind of felt like that was something that was important to me to do before I did something else with my life.”
The crewed mission will be the final flight test for SpaceX before it can be certified for regular missions. Next, SpaceX will fly NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins and Shannon Walker, as well as Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, on Dragon’s first six-month operational flight, which is set to launch later this year.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, NASA had to determine which critical functions it would continue to perform while most of its workforce transitions to working from home. The Commercial Crew program was deemed essential because it will help NASA continue to have a U.S. presence on the space station.
©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)