This Wednesday evening, if everything goes to plan, astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will be the first US astronauts to launch from US soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. The Space Shuttle, which had been ferrying astronauts to space since 1981, was retired as the design was proven to be dangerous and launch costs were high. In 2010, NASA embarked on a new program called Commercial Crew, which would see NASA investing money in private companies to provide launch services. Before this, all of NASA’s vehicles were operated by the space agency. Commercial Crew operates in a very different way. The companies involved operate the service and are free to sell launch services to whoever they want. NASA is essentially only buying tickets for their astronauts. Over the years there were a number of rounds of Commercial Crew funding to a number of companies including;
- Blue Origin
- Paragon Space Development Corporation
- Sierra Nevada Corporation
- United Launch Alliance
In the end, Space X and Boeing were the two companies that have successfully built commercial crew capsules. Beoing’s star liner capsule launched and landed in December 2019 with no crew on board. However, there were some software anomalies and NASA have decided they want Boeing to fly a second uncrewed test mission in the autumn of this year before allowing astronauts on board. Space X flew an uncrewed test mission of their Dragon capsule in January 2020. Following a successful flight, NASA were happy to allow astronauts fly on board.
The launch of the first crewed Dragon capsule is scheduled for 21:33 (Irish time) (4.33 EDT) on Wednesday 27th May from launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This was the launchpad used by NASA for the Apollo program, Space Shuttle and now Commercial Crew. This mission is called NASA Space X Demo-2. The week before a launch is a very busy period. On May 20th the astronauts arrived at the Kennedy Space Center having travelled from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, which is their normal base. The next day, on 21st May, the Falcon 9 rocket was rolled out to the launchpad and lifted into position. Meanwhile the flight readiness review got underway. On 22nd May, the flight readiness review concluded following a static fire test and the team was given the go ahead to proceed with the targeted launch date of May 27th. A static fire test is where the rocket is ignited but not allowed to take off. On Saturday last, 23rd May, the team did a full dressed rehearsal of launch day to ensure everyone is familiar with their role. At the moment the weather at launch time is not forecast to be good, with only a 40% chance the weather will be good enough to allow a launch. If the weather forces the launch to be canceled, a second attempt will be made on Saturday 30th May.
The rocket that will carry the Dragon capsule to orbit will be a Space X Falcon 9. On liftoff, the Falcon 9 is powered by 9 engines during the first stage. After 2 mins 36 seconds, the first stage separates and begins to fall back to Earth. Space X has designed the first stage with legs and engines to allow it to land vertically on a drone ship, so that it can be reused. Meanwhile the second stage will power the Dragon capsule on to the International Space Station. It will dock with the Space Station around 4.30 am Irish time on 28th May and the two astronauts onboard will become part of the Space Station crew for the next 2 to 3 months. When it is time to return they will use the heat shield on the Dragon to slow their decent though the atmosphere before deploying 3 large parachutes and landing in the Atlantic ocean. Once landed, they will be picked up by the Space X recovery team.
The entire launch will be available to watch live on NASA TV from 17.15 (Irish time) on Wednesday 27th May. The steam of NASA TV is available here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21X5lGlDOfg