A decade in the making: After a few stumbles and explosions, NASA will launch its astronauts to the ISS on Sunday, 31 May, 12.52 am IST

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will blast off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center launchpad.


Editor's Note: The NASA-SpaceX joint human spaceflight was scheduled for liftoff on Thursday, 28 May, 2.00 am IST (Wednesday, 27 May at 4.32 pm EDT) from the Launch Complex 39A from the Kenndy Space Centre, Florida. However, due to bad weather conditions, they had to cancel the launch. It has now been re-scheduled for 31 May, 12.52 AM IST.

NASA and SpaceX are all set to launch its astronauts, almost 10 years after the fatal Space Shuttle accident that shut down their human spaceflight program. The space agency and the private aerospace company have decided to launch on Wednesday, 27 May at 4.32 pm EDT (Thursday, 28 May, 2.00 am IST) from the Launch Complex 39A from the Kenndy Space Centre, Florida.

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will blast off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, departing from the same Kennedy Space Center launch pad used by shuttle Atlantis in July 2011, as well as the Apollo moonshots a half-century ago. Coincidently, Hurley had served as pilot on the last shuttle mission and will be the spacecraft commander for SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule.

 A decade in the making: After a few stumbles and explosions, NASA will launch its astronauts to the ISS on Sunday, 31 May, 12.52 am IST

NASA astronauts during a pre-flight test in SpaceX Crew Dragon. Image credit: Twitter

Only three countries have launched human beings into orbit since 1961 - Russia, the US and China, in that order. SpaceX would be the first company.

As with most missions, this date could change depending on pre-flight testing and last-minute emergencies. However, if all goes as planned, the mission would mark the first time NASA launches its astronauts from US soil, since 2011. It is also too soon to tell how the novel coronavirus pandemic that shut down the entire world will affect this mission affect this launch and what will it mean for visitors. Recently, Expedition 63 that launched on 9 April had an empty launch due to fear of the transmission of the disease.

Next month’s mission will be the final test for Crew Dragon before it starts regularly flying astronauts to space for NASA, under its Commercial Crew Program, a public-private initiative.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the mission with a tweet about Elon Musk, billionaire entrepreneur and owner of SpaceX sending two astronauts to the ISS aboard the Falcon 9 rocket.

“BREAKING: On May 27, @NASA will once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil!” Bridenstine wrote on Twitter.

 

 

Hurley and Behnken have extensive experience in space and have been involved in NASA's Space Shuttle flights.

Behnken will be the joint operations commander in this mission and was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2000. He has completed two space shuttle flights - STS-123 in March 2008 and STS-130 in February 2010 and performed three spacewalks during each mission.

Hurley was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2000 and will be the spacecraft commander for Demo-2. He has completed two spaceflights - STS‐127 in July 2009 and STS‐135, the final space shuttle mission, in July 2011. He was the pilot and lead robotics operator for both missions.

NASA has not announced how long they will be spending in the space station and it is currently 'under review'. The agency is wondering if their stay can be extended from a week to six months as this will ensure that the station is staffed with NASA astronauts continuously. With the space station crew now down to three, Hurley and Behnken will have to help maintain the orbiting lab. Since 2009 the ISS can, at one point, support six astronauts.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon to be used for Demo-2, arrives for processing. Image credit: Wikipedia

SpaceX's Crew Dragon to be used for Demo-2, arrives for processing. Image credit: Wikipedia

According to a NASA blog, the Crew Dragon that will be used in this flight can stay in orbit for around 110 days but the specific duration will be determined once the astronauts are in the station. As a NASA requirement, the crew capsules should be able to stay in orbit for up to 210 days and the decision will be taken considering the readiness of the next commercial crew launch.

US Space Shuttle

The Space Shuttle program was a reusable low Earth orbital spacecraft system that was operated from 1981 to 2011. Its official program name was Space Transportation System (STS).  It has launched man satellites and interplanetary probes, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope and helped in the construction and servicing of the International Space Station. However, the program was deadly with two major disasters, shutting it down forever. On 28 January 1986, the STS-51-L disintegrated 73 seconds after its launch, due to an equipment failure and killed seven astronauts on board.  Again, on 1 February 2003, a spacecraft disintegrated during re-entry and killed all seven of the STS-107 crew.

Soyuz missions

NASA has been working with SpaceX's and Boeing's to develop its own human space flight program but there have been countless delays with the private companies' crew capsules which in turn has forced NASA to continue to buy seats on Russia's Soyuz rockets. They have become a very expensive necessity for the US space agency as Russia has scaled back it program to just two missions a year. For this mission, as a precaution, NASA has bought seats on the Soyuz rocket. The Soyuz capsules have been the only way to transport the crews the space station since 2011.

Boeing

Boeing has had a lot of trouble with developing a safe and functional crew capsule that can take NASA astronauts to the ISS. Its last flight test was a massive failure and NASA has even opened an investigation into this disaster test flight. Boeing Co’s CST-100 Starliner astronaut capsule had a successful launch of its first unmanned test mission, but an automated timer error prevented the spacecraft from attaining the correct orbit for it to rendezvous and dock with the space station. It is supposed to have another test flight, later this year.

With input from agencies

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What do we know SpaceX's astronaut suits and the vehicle they use to travel to the launchpad; launch on Sunday, 31 May, 12.52 am IST


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