SpaceX and NASA are gearing up for a historic flight. On 27 May, they plan to launch astronauts from the US for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle programme in 2011. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft will launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket for a mission that will test the craft and its emergency procedures, in a flight 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 craft.
That means that nearly everything about this mission is new, including the touchscreen-laden craft, the sleek white spacesuits 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 fellow crew member Robert Behnken 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 trips aboard the Space Shuttle, but it will be different for everyone else. All of the NASA and SpaceX control rooms have been reorganised so that the desks are six feet away from one another to allow the mission’s support staff to maintain social distancing protocols.
The legions that have gathered on the Florida coast for many previous launches will also 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 with his past experiences as a test pilot for the US Air Force: everything needs to be checked so that future astronauts won’t have to do any emergency procedures for the first time during an actual crisis.
It hasn’t yet been decided 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. The duration will depend on how long it takes to prepare SpaceX’s craft for its next crewed mission, which will ideally launch as soon as possible after this one returns to ensure that there are enough astronauts aboard the ISS to keep the science experiments there active.
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