Hawthorne-based SpaceX will look to make aerospace history Wednesday when it attempts to launch two astronauts bound for the International Space Station, the first such crewed launch from American soil since the space shuttle program was retired nearly a decade ago.
“This is a unique moment where all of America can take a moment and look at our country do something stunning again, and that is launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
As of Tuesday morning, NASA officials said the weather forecast was 60% favorable for the scheduled launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The launch is set for 1:33 p.m. California time Wednesday. Backup launch windows are scheduled for 12:22 p.m. California time Saturday and noon Sunday.
Launching from the Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft will be carrying veteran astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on what is technically a demonstration flight, showing the capabilities of the SpaceX ship, which will be propelled by one of the company’s signature Falcon 9 rockets.
SpaceX will attempt to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket by landing it on a floating barge — dubbed “Of Course I Still Love You” — floating in the Atlantic Ocean.
Astronauts haven’t launched into space from American soil since the space shuttle program was retired in 2011. Traveling to the International Space Station is now done aboard Russian Soyuz rockets launched from Kazakhstan.
SpaceX conducted an unmanned test flight of the Crew Dragon capsule in March 2019, sending the spacecraft to the International Space Station with an array of cargo and a mannequin playfully named Ripley, after Sigourney Weaver’s character in the “Alien” film franchise.
The company and its founder, Elon Musk, have dubbed the space station trips a stepping stone for bolder plans, most notably returning to the Moon and ultimately flying crewed missions to Mars.
Once launched, the Crew Dragon with its two occupants will orbit the Earth, with Hurley and Behnken testing flight capabilities of the spaceship, although it is designed to essentially fly itself and autonomously dock with the space station.
The ship is scheduled to arrive at the space station at about 8:30 a.m. Thursday, California time.
A date has not yet been set for the ship — and Hurley and Behnken — to return to Earth.
NASA Deputy Administrator James Morhard said the return of American flight capabilities to the space station is critical to future research.
“Why are we here? We’re here to expand the human condition for all mankind,” he said. “… Right now we’ve got one astronaut on the space station, and when we get the full complement back, we’re going to increase our research up there by 300% and that’s about helping others. That’s why we exist.”
Bridenstine said he believes the launch will be a unifying national event at a time of frazzled nerves and heightened political divisions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This space program that we have in this country unites people, period,” he said. “It always has. We look at the most divisive times in American history. We think about the Vietnam War, the 1960s, not just the war, but the protests. We think about the civil rights abuses and the civil rights protests. The very divisive, challenging times. And here we are all these years later in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and we have this moment in time where we can unite people again.”