SpaceX is set to launch its astronaut capsule to space for the first time in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Called Demo-1, the mission is a key test flight to prove to NASA that the agency's astronauts will be safe on future flights. There are no crew aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule for this launch, which will use a Falcon 9 rocket. But Elon Musk's company has included a "dummy" on board, clad in a SpaceX flight suit – much like the "Starman" that was launched in a Tesla Roadster for last year's maiden Falcon Heavy launch.
Demo-2, the first crewed flight, is scheduled for July. According to NASA's schedule, SpaceX is set to become the first to launch U.S. astronauts from U.S. soil since 2011.
SpaceX Demo-1 is scheduled to launch at 2:48 a.m. ET on Saturday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
While the capsule does not have any people inside for this mission, Crew Dragon will carry about 400 pounds of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS).
After traveling in orbit for just over 24 hours, the capsule is scheduled to autonomously dock directly with the ISS on Sunday morning. Crew Dragon is scheduled to remain attached until March 8, when it will undock from the ISS and return to Earth. Crew Dragon will use four parachutes to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean.
"SpaceX is required to get the crew and spacecraft out of the water in less than an hour after splashdown," NASA said in a press release.
NASA has outlined five key objectives for Demo-1:
SpaceX won a $2.6 billion contract from NASA in 2014 to develop the capsule. Crew Dragon is an evolved version of the company's Cargo Dragon capsule, which has completed 16 missions to the ISS. But, even when it was built to launch cargo, SpaceX's intent was always to build a vehicle capable of launching astronauts.
There are a few key differences between Cargo Dragon and Crew Dragon. Notably, Crew Dragon is both taller and heavier than the cargo version. NASA said Crew Dragon will eventually be able to send as many as four astronauts at a time to the ISS. Additionally, Crew Dragon has eight "SuperDraco" engines that Cargo Dragon does not. Those will be used in the event of an emergency while the astronauts are on board.
Safety is key for the Commercial Crew program, as it represents one of NASA's biggest partnerships with the private industry.
"We are not going to fly until we're ready to fly these folks safely," SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell told reporters in August. She said the company needs "to demonstrate that this vehicle is capable of taking astronauts up from U.S. soil as often as NASA will allow us to do so."
Commercial Crew is NASA's solution to once again launch U.S. astronauts from U.S. soil. Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, astronauts have flown aboard Russian Soyuz — at a cost to NASA of more than $70 million per seat. NASA's new program is competitive, with contracts up for grabs for Boeing to win with its Starliner capsules and SpaceX with its Dragon capsules.
NASA last year presented the first nine astronauts who will ride in SpaceX's and Boeing's capsules.
But delays have plagued the Commercial Crew program, which began nearly a decade ago. NASA awarded the current contracts in 2014. Since then, the program has had 13 quarterly reviews, according to the GAO, with Boeing reporting delays in key program developments during seven reviews and SpaceX reporting delays at nine of them. As recently as June, NASA officials told the GAO that the publicly known dates for the remaining development, testing and certification "may change soon," the report says.
"Additional delays could result in a gap in U.S. access to the space station as NASA has contracted for seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft only through November 2019," the report says. NASA "does not have a contingency plan for ensuring uninterrupted U.S. access."