In July 2011, NASA’s Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from Florida to the International Space Station. That was the last time humans traveled to space from US soil. The long drought should soon be over as SpaceX prepares to send two NASA astronauts to the ISS inside a purpose-built Crew Dragon capsule. This mission passed a critical readiness review and launch is scheduled for Wednesday, May 27.
The mission, known as Demo-2, has had its share of setbacks. With safety checks on the capsule complete, however, NASA and SpaceX are finally ready to fly. We’ve rounded up everything you need to know about the historic launch and when and where you can tune in.
Demo-2: The basics
Demo-2 is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which involves two commercial spaceflight companies, SpaceX and Boeing, building and launching crew capsules designed to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS.
SpaceX has a history of cargo and payload launches, but this will be the company’s first time sending humans off this rock.
SpaceX set to to take its first astronauts into space
When: The launch is scheduled for Wednesday, May 27, at 1:33 p.m. PT/4:33 p.m. ET.
If the weather fails to cooperate or some other factor interferes, SpaceX has reserved backup launch times at 12:22 p.m. PT/3:22 p.m. ET on Saturday, May 30, or at 12 p.m. PT/3 p.m. ET on Sunday, May 31.
Where: The Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule will blast off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The historic launch pad has previously hosted Apollo and space shuttle missions.
Why: NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is aimed at ending the US reliance on Russian spacecraft for ferrying astronauts to the ISS. NASA has been buying seats on Soyuz capsules since the end of the shuttle program.
This is also part of a broader NASA push for commercial partnerships. “By encouraging industry to provide human transportation services to and from low-Earth orbit, NASA can expand its focus on building spacecraft and rockets for deep space missions,” the space agency said.
The spacecraft: The SpaceX Crew Dragon is the human transportation version of the Dragon 2 capsule that has been used to carry cargo to the ISS. While only two astronauts will be on board at the end of May, the capsule can be configured to carry up to seven passengers.
The rocket: SpaceX’s proven Falcon 9 rocket will escort Crew Dragon through the launch. NASA’s iconic throwback “worm” logo is emblazoned on the side of the rocket. Falcon 9s have successfully launched dozens of SpaceX missions.
The Falcon 9 booster is reusable and will attempt to land on a SpaceX droneship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.
The crew: NASA assigned astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to Crew Dragon back in 2018. Both have been to space on different shuttle missions, with Hurley flying on the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis in 2011. They will be wearing spacesuits designed in-house by SpaceX.
The goal: If SpaceX passes muster during Demo-2, then NASA will certify Crew Dragon for regular flights back and forth to the ISS. The space agency is already looking ahead to this outcome and has assigned astronauts to the first Crew Dragon operational mission, which could launch before the end of the year if all goes well.
NASA announced on May 22 that Demo-2 had passed its flight readiness review and was cleared to go.
How to watch the Demo-2 mission live
NASA will provide streaming coverage of prelaunch, launch and ISS docking activities through NASA TV. The launch timing will depend on good weather conditions both at the launch site and out in the ocean where the crew capsule would splash down in case of an emergency during launch.
Prelaunch coverage starts at 9:15 a.m. PT on May 27 ahead of the scheduled 1:33 p.m. PT liftoff time. NASA TV will provide continuous coverage from launch through docking. Crew Dragon’s arrival at the ISS is set for 8:29 a.m. PT on Thursday, May 28. SpaceX will also provide a launch webcast.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted on May 22 that he would be watching the event from mission control in Florida. Musk described the mission as the “culmination of a truly incredible amount of work by SpaceX and NASA engineering, along with support of all International Space Station countries.”
Discovery and Science Channel will offer a different view of the proceedings with its Space Launch Live event starting at 11 a.m. PT. The lineup includes singer Katy Perry and YouTube star and former NASA engineer Mark Rober along with both former and current NASA astronauts. “Our live special offers both incredible access for the launch, and expert insight from SpaceX Founder and Chief Engineer Elon Musk and other leading aerospace professionals,” Discovery said in a release on May 20.
NASA is viewing the SpaceX Demo-2 mission as the dawn of “a new era of human spaceflight.”
NASA awarded the original Commercial Crew Program contracts to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 with an eye to launching astronauts in 2017. Delays are common during spacecraft development and both SpaceX and Boeing ran into their share of hiccups. Boeing is still working through a series of technical issues that cropped up during a test flight of its Starliner vehicle in late 2019.
SpaceX, however, successfully completed the Demo-1 uncrewed round trip to the ISS in early 2019 and a critical in-flight abort test at the beginning of the year, setting the stage for Demo-2. It’s called Demo-2 because it’s still, technically, a “demonstration” rather than a full-fledged space mission. It marks the final test for SpaceX and its Crew Dragon capsule and will allow Elon Musk’s spaceflight company to achieve human-rated certification of its spacecraft.
Demo-2 will also be the first time a two-person crew launched from the United States since the space shuttle Columbia departed for space, on the fourth mission of the program in 1982.
Meet the astronauts
Behnken and Hurley entered preflight quarantine on May 13. Prelaunch quarantines were already standard procedure prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but NASA will add some extra steps to the process. “Hurley and Behnken, as well as those in direct, close contact with the crew will be tested twice for the virus as a precaution,” NASA said in a statement in May.
Bob Behnken: NASA selected Behnken, an experienced Air Force pilot, as an astronaut in 2000. He last visited space on a shuttle mission in 2010. He has spent 708 hours in space, with 37 of those taken up by spacewalks.
Behnken tweeted on May 12 that he had to get approval from his young son before launch.
Doug Hurley: Hurley, a retired Marine, was also selected as an astronaut in 2000. A veteran of two space missions, he was last in orbit in 2011 on NASA’s final shuttle mission. That adds some poetry to Hurley’s assignment to Demo-2. He was one of the last astronauts to launch from US soil and will be one of the first to do it again.
Hurley shared his own son’s drawing of Crew Dragon in late April.
NASA has not yet decided exactly how long Behnken and Hurley will remain on the ISS. “They will perform tests on Crew Dragon in addition to conducting research and other tasks with the space station crew,” said NASA. The astronauts will return on Crew Dragon and splash down in the Atlantic where they will be greeted by a SpaceX recovery vessel.
May 27 is set to mark a major milestone in space history. It’s not just about the patriotic overtones of launching American astronauts from American soil using an American rocket.
SpaceX and NASA are set to pick up a dropped thread in human spaceflight, filling the void left by the retirement of the space shuttles. We are pretty good at sending robotic explorers to far-flung places in the solar system, but the stakes are always higher when human lives are involved. The world will be watching.