SpaceX and NASA are gearing up for a historic launch. On 27 May, they plan to launch astronauts from the US for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle programme. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft will launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket for a flight that will test the craft and its emergency procedures – a mission run from NASA and SpaceX mission control rooms that have been rearranged to accommodate coronavirus social distancing measures.
In a series of press conferences on 1 May, representatives from NASA and SpaceX shared more details about the upcoming flight, which will be the first time astronauts are sent to space on a commercial spacecraft.
That means that nearly everything about this mission is new, including the touchscreen-laden spacecraft, the sleek white space suits, and the life support systems. “As far as the toilet, we’ll let you know how it works out. They have one, we’ll try it, and we’ll let you know,” said Douglas Hurley, one of the two NASA astronauts who will join the mission.
He and Robert Behnken, the other crew member, have gone through thousands of hours of training for the mission to the International Space Station (ISS), but they remarked that regardless of training, the first crewed flight on a new spacecraft carries more risk than flying on a flight-tested craft.
“The big difference for us [between past missions and this one] is that the vehicle that we’re going on has never flown before with crew,” said Behnken. “It’s all been walked through, but never with any real danger.”
“I’ll feel a little relief in orbit, I’ll feel more relief when they get to station, and I’ll start sleeping again when they’re back safely on the planet,” said SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell.
Launch day for the astronauts will be similar to their previous launches aboard the Space Shuttle, but it will be different for everyone else. All of the NASA and SpaceX control rooms have been reorganized so that the desks are six feet away from one another to allow the mission’s support staff to maintain social distancing protocols.
And the crowds that have gathered on the Florida coast for many previous launches will be discouraged. “Having huge crowds of hundreds of thousands of people at Kennedy Space Center, now is not the time for that,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “We are asking people to watch from home.”
Because this is a test flight, much of the mission involves running through procedures for various emergency scenarios to make sure Crew Dragon can handle them. That will include manually steering the spacecraft on the way to and from the ISS, and testing its capabilities for use as a lifeboat for ISS astronauts.
Behnken compared it to his past experience as a test pilot for the US Air Force – everything needs to be tested so that future astronauts won’t have to do any emergency procedures for the first time ever during an actual crisis.
It hasn’t been decided yet exactly how long Hurley and Behnken will remain on the ISS before heading home. It could last anywhere from about a month to nearly four months, said Steve Stich at NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. That will depend on how long it takes to prepare SpaceX’s craft for its next crew mission, which will ideally launch as soon as possible after this one returns to ensure that there are enough astronauts on board the ISS to keep the science experiments there active.
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