SpaceX's launch heralds a new era of human spaceflight

The U.S. returns to space Wednesday, but the flight’s significance goes beyond patriotic notions.
Image: A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken is seen before scheduled launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken is seen before scheduled launch of NASA's SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S. May 27, 2020.Joe Skipper / Reuters

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Denise Chow

Nearly nine years after astronaut Doug Hurley piloted the space shuttle Atlantis on the final flight of NASA’s shuttle program, he’s preparing once again for what is slated to be one of the most important launches in the agency’s history.

Hurley and fellow astronaut Bob Behnken are scheduled to launch Wednesday on a test flight to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. It will be the first time since 2011 that astronauts lift off from American soil on American-made rockets and spacecraft.

But the flight’s significance goes beyond patriotic notions, with NASA officials saying that the long-anticipated launch could usher in a new era of human spaceflight — one that is reliant on private companies rather than the government.

“We as a nation have not had our own access to the International Space Station for nine years,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said earlier this month in a news briefing. “This is a very exciting time.”

Over the past nine years, NASA has awarded lucrative contracts to private companies such as SpaceX and Boeing to take over routine flights to the space station. Wednesday’s launch is a critical step in that direction. It will be the first time a commercially built vehicle carries NASA astronauts into orbit and the first time that SpaceX attempts to ferry human passengers to the space station.

NASA retired its iconic space shuttle fleet in 2011 after 135 flights. Since then, the agency has relied on its partnership with Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, to ferry American astronauts to the orbiting outpost — an arrangement with a whopping price tag of more than $80 million per seat. But NASA may soon have other options.

“This launch is our next step toward increasing American — and really human — presence aboard the orbiting laboratory,” Kirk Shireman, NASA’s program manager for the International Space Station, said in the briefing.

Behnken and Hurley are slated to lift off at 4:33 p.m. ET from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Fittingly, SpaceX will be using a launchpad that was originally built for another critical chapter in NASA’s history: the Saturn V rocket launches that carried astronauts to the moon during the Apollo program.

If the launch is successful, the astronaut duo will spend about 19 hours orbiting Earth before attempting to rendezvous and dock at the space station at 11:29 a.m. ET Thursday.

For SpaceX, the upcoming launch is a culmination of six years of work on a new spacecraft. The California-based firm, founded by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, designed the gumdrop-shaped Crew Dragon capsule as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard is raised into a vertical position on the launch pad at Launch Complex 39A as preparations continue for the Demo-2 mission on May 21, 2020, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.Bill Ingalls / NASA

Uncrewed versions of the Dragon capsule have flown cargo and other supplies to the International Space Station since 2012, but the upcoming launch will be the first time the Crew Dragon spacecraft makes the journey with astronauts onboard.

NASA awarded SpaceX more than $3 billion to develop the Crew Dragon capsule under the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. The upcoming test flight represents the last major milestone for SpaceX in demonstrating that the capsule can safely transport human passengers to and from the orbiting lab.

As part of the Commercial Crew Program, NASA also awarded funding to SpaceX’s rival, Boeing, which is similarly developing a spacecraft known as the CST-100 Starliner. In December, Boeing conducted an uncrewed test flight of the CST-100 Starliner, but a timer glitch prevented the capsule from reaching the proper orbit to dock with the space station. Last month, Boeing announced that the company will fly a second uncrewed test flight later this year to demonstrate that the issue has been corrected.

Typically, NASA would treat this week’s historic launch as a big event, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, the agency has asked people to refrain from traveling to the Kennedy Space Center and neighboring beaches to view the liftoff. Instead, the agency is advising space enthusiasts to watch the event on television or through a livestream.

SpaceX’s upcoming launch represents a key milestone for the burgeoning commercial spaceflight industry, but it’s also a stepping stone for the company’s greater ambitions, according to Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer. Though it’s still a test flight, a successful mission will lay the foundation for commercial space travel beyond the space station.

“We were founded in 2002 to fly people to low-Earth orbit, the moon and Mars,” Shotwell said, “and NASA has certainly made that possible.”