SpaceX to make history launching NASA astronauts on a private rocket

The Crew Dragon capsule is ready for launchSpaceX/Flickr

On 27 May, astronauts will blast off to space from the US for the first time since the end of the space shuttle programme in 2011. Two NASA astronauts – Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley – are slated to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket.

The launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, will be the first time astronauts have flown into orbit aboard a spacecraft produced and operated by a private company. It marks the beginning of a new era in human space flight: currently, only the Russian and Chinese space agencies are able to launch humans into space.

Because of that, NASA has been purchasing flights aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get its astronauts to the ISS since 2011. If all goes well with this flight, which is the final test of the Crew Dragon, that will no longer be necessary. NASA has purchased one more Soyuz seat for a flight in October as a backup plan in case the Crew Dragon test goes wrong or is delayed.

Despite the collective excitement about the launch, it is important that the astronauts and mission support staff feel comfortable putting it off if there are any safety concerns whatsoever, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a 26 May press conference. “We want people to feel free to say no and not feel any pressure to go on this launch,” he said.

If the launch does go ahead, the astronauts will stay on the ISS for between one and four months before getting back into the Crew Dragon to come home. Otherwise, there are backup launch dates on 30 and 31 May.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, NASA is asking visitors not to crowd onto beaches near the Cape Canaveral launch site to watch, as they have done for many previous launches. Instead, they are recommending that spectators watch online from home.

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