ORLANDO, Fla. — May 27 could mark only the ninth time in the history of the world that a crew of astronauts will take off from a brand new launch vehicle on a mission to space. The last time the United States did it was in 1981, 39 years ago.
The magnitude of the historical milestone and the pressure of the launch is weighing on the teams at SpaceX and NASA that are orchestrating the mission, a piloted test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule that plans to return to the U.S. the capability of flying astronauts to the International Space Station from American soil.
With only 26 days until the flight, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said during a news conference Friday that her “heart is sitting right here,” pointing at her throat.
“And I think it’s going to stay there,” she said, “until we get (astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley) safely back from the ISS.”
Hurley flew on the last mission of the space shuttle in 2011, a turning point in the nation’s space program when Russia took over as the nation shuttling astronauts to space — for $80 million a seat.
Since then, NASA has been working with private companies to change that. The path to regular operational missions from the Space Coast will be clear if this month’s flight is successful. It’s scheduled for 4:32 p.m. from Kennedy Space Center’s launch complex 39A, the same one that launched astronauts to the moon in 1969. A back-up launch window is available on May 30.
NASA’s shift to build more commercial partnerships is what brought SpaceX and Boeing, the space agency’s other partner on this program, called Commercial Crew, into the fold. It’s a mission that for SpaceX is 18 years in the making. The company was founded by Elon Musk in 2002 with the goal of flying humans to space.
But it’s going to play out in a way no one involved with the effort could have expected.
The coronavirus pandemic will significantly dull in-person celebrations across Florida. NASA moved ahead with the mission anyway because the agency deemed it an essential part of keeping the ISS piloted with an American crew member, something the agency was at risk of losing after multiple delays to the Commercial Crew program.
In the past, hundreds of thousands of people have descended on KSC, lining Playalinda Beach and State Road 401 to watch rockets cut through clouds, the roar of the engines echoing across the region.
Not this time.
“We are asking people not to travel to the Kennedy Space Center, and I will tell you that makes me sad to even say it,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Friday. “Boy, I wish we could make this into something really spectacular.”
But Bridenstine said the “No. 1, highest priority of NASA” is to keep people safe, and he doesn’t want to risk another outbreak by allowing thousands to congregate for the launch. Viewers are encouraged to instead watch the mission online and from their TVs at home.
For a public that has been starved of sports and major events for weeks, the power of the mission might even be more magnified, said Zeb Scoville, NASA flight director for the mission.
“It’ll be like getting the World Series, the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl all rolled into one when the Falcon 9 lifts off the coast of Florida,” Scoville said.
SpaceX and NASA still have a few tests to finalize before May 27, including flight and launch readiness reviews.
On Friday, Elon Musk’s rocket company completed one of its outstanding milestones: The 27th test of the company’s upgraded parachute design.
The crew, Behnken and Hurley, will go into formal quarantine on May 16 at Johnson Space Center, but they’ve already been in quarantine with each other and their families for some time because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We assume pandemic for all crews that are headed toward space station and try to keep them as safe as possible in that two weeks so that they don’t take something to the space station,” Behnken said. “(This time,) we just have been doing that longer.”
On May 27, the two will head to the launch pad three hours before the mission takes off. Once there, Behnken said they’ll have a chance to call family from a phone on the pad.
“Hopefully, we get a person and not an answering machine when we make that call,” Behnken joked.
Once in space, Crew Dragon will spend some time in orbit before autonomously docking with the ISS, but Behnken and Hurley can also fly the vehicle manually if the need arises.
They’ll spend at least a month on board. Steve Stich, deputy manager of the Commercial Crew program at Johnson, said the agency will determine just how long the mission will be once the astronauts arrive at the ISS.
Hurley also plans to follow up on a tradition started with the first space shuttle mission in 1981, the last time a new vehicle carried astronauts. A flag that flew on that flight was presented to the team on the ISS by Hurley and his crew during the last shuttle mission in 2011, with the “hopes that when we returned with a U.S. vehicle, whoever was lucky enough to get up there and do that, they would be able to bring it back to U.S. soil,” he said in 2015.
Hurley plans to deliver on that promise, he said Friday.
Then, when the mission is completed, the astronauts will climb back into Crew Dragon and splashdown under parachutes in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.
It’ll be the first time an American capsule returns to Earth in a water landing since the Apollo capsule. On the Russian Soyuz rockets and with the space shuttle, landings were on land.
“We do expect it to be a little bit softer than a Soyuz landing but definitely harder than a space shuttle landing,” Behnken said. “The ride that we get once we get in the ocean will be one that will I will tell you about.”
For Shotwell at SpaceX, the leap to carrying humans instead of cargo is one she’s taken very seriously.
“I wanted to make sure everyone at SpaceX understood and knew Bob and Doug, as astronauts, as test pilots, badass,” she said, “but [also as] dads and husbands. I wanted to bring some humanity to this very deeply technical effort as well.”
When Behnken flew on the space shuttle, he wasn’t a father. Now, he’ll have his 6-year-old son, Theodore, watching.
It was important that he and his wife, astronaut Megan McArthur, prepare their son for the mission. In their Houston neighborhood, they’ve had model rocket launches and read books about the Falcon 9 and the Saturn V, the rocket that took America to the moon. (For the record, Theodore is glad his dad is going on the Falcon and not Saturn because nine engines is better than five).
Ahead of the upcoming mission, Behnken and McArthur flew their son to a SpaceX cargo launch in Florida a few months ago to help prepare him.
“He was trepidatious about that and didn’t think anyone should go on it,” Behnken said.
But after he saw the entire mission, he gave his all-too-important thumbs up: “He was comfortable enough to give me approval to go and fly and then suggested that mommy could go second, then he was going to go third.”
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