- SpaceX plans to launch a pair of NASA astronauts on Wednesday, in mission called Demo-2.
- "This is a new generation, a new era in spaceflight," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
- The historic importance of Demo-2 is drawing a wide audience, from Wall Street to Silicon Valley to the nation's capital.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX is set for its most important milestone, a launch that may well define the future of the U.S. space program.
Elon Musk's company plans to launch two NASA astronauts on Wednesday — the first crewed mission in SpaceX history. The mission, called Demo-2, is technically the final test flight of the company's spacecraft. Regardless of the nature of the mission, Demo-2 will be the first launch of NASA astronauts from the U.S. since 2011.
"This is a new generation, a new era in spaceflight," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
Ever since the space shuttle retired nearly a decade ago, the U.S. has paid Russia upwards of $80 million per seat to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. But NASA awarded SpaceX and Boeing with contracts worth $3.1 billion and $4.8 billion, respectively, to develop new spacecraft under a program called Commercial Crew. For SpaceX, the Demo-2 launch represents the final flight test of its Crew Dragon capsule, built to carry as many as seven people to orbit.
"We need to have the capability of accessing space — not just for NASA, but for all of humanity," Bridenstine said.
The historic importance of Demo-2 is drawing a wide audience, from Wall Street to Silicon Valley to the nation's capital. VIPs scheduled to attend at NASA's Kennedy Space Center include President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. SpaceX founder and CEO Musk plans to watch from within the Mission Control room just a few miles from the launch site.
Morgan Stanley is telling investors to pay attention to Demo-2 because of what it means for the future of private spaceflight and the many companies working on technologies to support futures missions.
"Mark May 27th on your calendars. You don't want to miss this," Morgan Stanley said.
One of the key factors for launching remains the temperamental Florida weather. NASA and SpaceX continue to move forward with the launch as planned, with liftoff set for 4:33 p.m. ET Wednesday. As of Monday, the Air Force's 45th Space Wing forecast that the launch has a 40% probability, given current weather concerns, which include rain and thick clouds. If NASA and SpaceX decide to postpone the launch, the mission has back-up times set for Saturday at 3:22 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
While thousands of people have come to Florida's Space Coast to watch NASA launch crew, the agency made an unprecedented request given the coronavirus crisis. The head of NASA said "now is not the time" for large crowds to gather on the highways and beaches to watch the launch.
"Join us in this launch but do so from home. We are asking people not to travel to the Kennedy Space Center," Bridenstine said.
NASA will broadcast 24 hours of nonstop live coverage of SpaceX Demo-2. The webcast will begin four hours before liftoff and continues until the spacecraft docks with the International Space Station the next day.
Here is what you need to know about SpaceX's first astronaut launch.
Crew Dragon is the name of the SpaceX capsule that will carry NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. It's an evolved version of the company's Cargo Dragon spacecraft, which has launched to-and-from the space station 20 times. Just as Cargo Dragon was the first privately developed spacecraft to bring supplies to the ISS, so Crew Dragon will be the first privately developed spacecraft to bring people.
"The investments that we have made into SpaceX and the investment SpaceX has made in itself have really resulted in something that is going to be very beneficial — not just for human space exploration, but beneficial for the economy," Bridenstine said.
Likewise, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell told reporters that "NASA has been an extraordinary customer and extraordinary partner" for the company. While Shotwell didn't know specifically how much SpaceX had spent of its own funds to develop Crew Dragon, she noted that "SpaceX invests heavily in our products." Last year, Musk said SpaceX had invested on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars to fund Crew Dragon development.
NASA also expects that in addition to getting a way to send astronauts to space, it will be getting a cost-saving option as well. The agency expects to pay $55 million per astronaut to fly with Crew Dragon, as opposed to $86 million per astronaut to fly with the Russians.
"We together have become stronger in engineering technical support for this nation," NASA Commercial Crew program manager Kathy Lueders said.
Crew Dragon with its trunk stands just under 27 feet tall and 13 feet around. The spacecraft includes its own system of small rocket engines for directional control in space and a launch abort system in the event of an emergency. Its trunk is the large lower half that's covered in solar panels, which can carry cargo.
The spacecraft is designed to carry seven people. It has a system of controls that is focused around touch screens, although NASA notes that Crew Dragon has a "robust fault tolerance built into the system." As the astronauts will be wearing custom SpaceX spacesuits, the touch screens work whether or not the astronauts are wearing gloves. The spacesuits are largely designed to protect the astronauts in the event that the spacecraft loses pressurization, with life support and power systems connected through a point on the spacesuit's leg.
Additionally, the astronauts are expected to have to manually control the spacecraft only for a short period. Even the very careful docking process when Crew Dragon reaches the ISS is expected to be done autonomously.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 is the workhorse of the company's growing fleet of rockets. It stands at nearly 230 feet tall and is capable of launching as much as 25 tons to low Earth orbit.
Crew Dragon will sit in place of the rocket's nose cone at the top. After launching the spacecraft on its way, the large lower portion of Falcon 9, known as the "booster," will reenter the Earth's atmosphere and attempt to land on the company's drone ship in the ocean. SpaceX has landed its Falcon 9 rocket boosters 44 times.
Behnken, 49, and Hurley, 53, have been astronauts since being selected in NASA's class of 2000. Each flew on two space shuttle missions, with Hurley notably flying on that spacecraft's last mission in July 2011. Both are military veterans: Behnken served in the Air Force and Hurley in the Marine Corps.
For Demo-2, Behnken is the joint operations commander, which means he is responsible for tasks such as reaching the ISS and docking. Hurley is the spacecraft commander and will be responsible for Crew Dragon's launch, landing and recovery.
The pair officially entered a preflight quarantine on May 13, although the astronauts said they've been self-isolating since mid-March. While astronauts typically enter a quarantine ahead of a mission, the protocol has been additionally strict for Demo-2 due to the coronavirus. NASA commercial spaceflight director Phil McAlister said earlier this month that "direct interaction with the crew is not permitted without appropriate protective gear." Even interaction with VIPs the day before launch will be through a glass wall.
SpaceX has also taken extra precautions. Shotwell said that in the last two months, the company has been "ensuring that only essential personnel" were going near astronauts during training. SpaceX employees "are wearing masks and gloves," she added.
"We are social distancing as well. We've got at least half our engineering staff working from home," Shotwell said.
Even the Mission Control room will look different than in years past, NASA said. The agency will use different rooms to keep people safely distant from each other, with NASA looking to add plexiglass between seats and stations for Demo-2.
Four hours before liftoff, Behnken and Hurley will suit up. About a half an hour later, the crew will walk out to their Tesla Model X, complete with NASA logos, and drive from the astronaut quarters out to the launchpad.
With 2½ hours to go, the astronauts will strap into their seats in Crew Dragon and begin checking that all systems are good to go. Then, with just under two hours until launch, the hatch to the spacecraft will be closed.
SpaceX will begin loading the rocket with fuel 35 minutes before launch, which will initiate a final series of processes and checks.
"We've worked closely with NASA since 2006 and all that work is culminating to this historic event," Shotwell said. "My heart is sitting right here [in my throat], and I think it's going to stay there until we get Bob and Doug safely back from the International Space Station."
A few minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9's booster stage will return and attempt to land on the company's barge stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.
If anything were to go wrong in the last half hour before the launch and even during the launch, Crew Dragon will abort and fire its emergency escape system. The company performed a full test of that system in January with no one inside the spacecraft. That test saw SpaceX trigger the system during the most intense part of the launch to show that it could be done at any time.
The Demo-2 mission has only just begun after Crew Dragon reaches orbit. As the final flight test for SpaceX's capsule, NASA said Demo-2 "will validate the company's crew transportation system, including the launch pad, rocket, spacecraft, and operational capabilities."
Docking with the ISS will be a critical part of the mission. Although expected to be done autonomously, the docking and undocking process is essentially a high-speed dance in orbit, as both the ISS and Crew Dragon will be moving at tens of thousands of miles per hour. SpaceX created a virtual simulator of the docking process, so that viewers can try their hand at manually docking Crew Dragon. Notably, the virtual simulator use the actual interface that Behnken and Hurley would use when piloting the spacecraft.
Once Crew Dragon docks, Behnken and Hurley will become part of the crew on the ISS. In addition to performing test on Crew Dragon, the astronauts will join the rest of the ISS crew in conducting research and other tasks.
NASA is not sure how long the Demo-2 mission will last. McAlister said the mission has "an unbelievably complicated set of criteria and considerations" for its duration, which is currently set for between 30 to 119 days. The Crew Dragon spacecraft for future missions will be capable of staying in space for at least 210 days.
After undocking, Behnken and Hurley will point Crew Dragon back toward Earth. The capsule will reenter the Earth's atmosphere and then use its parachutes to slow and splash down in the Atlantic. The astronauts will then be picked up at sea by SpaceX's ship "GO Navigator" and then return to Florida's Space Coast.
Demo-2 represents the final step before NASA certifies the SpaceX capsule to fly regular, long missions to the ISS. After those missions begin, SpaceX plans to use Crew Dragon spacecraft for other missions. Those include space tourism, as the company has so far unveiled two deals to fly privately paying people to space on Crew Dragon as early as next year.
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