US will launch first astronauts since 2011, pandemic or no

All aboard.
All aboard.
Image: SpaceX
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A SpaceX rocket will carry two astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) on May 27, in the first crewed space mission launched from the United States since 2011.

NASA, the US space agency, has given Elon Musk’s space company the go-ahead after six years of work to develop and test their crew Dragon spacecraft. It will be the first time NASA astronauts have flown on a privately-designed spacecraft instead of one developed by the agency itself.

The Dragon completed its final safety test in January after being put through its paces during an uncrewed test flight in March 2019. An unexpected test anomaly that destroyed a vehicle and some trouble with parachutes delayed this pivotal flight until now.

But, before any launch takes place, NASA says that SpaceX must complete a final parachute drop test, and finish an investigation into an engine failure that occurred during the otherwise successful flight of a Falcon 9 rocket on March 18. “The cause and corrective actions will have to be identified and agreed to by NASA prior to [the crewed test flight],” a NASA spokesperson told Quartz. SpaceX declined to comment.

On launch day, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are expected to lift off at 4:32 pm ET. They’ll leave from the same launch pad as the Apollo missions. After reaching orbit, they will spend about 24 hours testing the Dragon’s various sensors, communications systems, and thrusters before docking with the ISS.

The already complex choreography of hurling people into space will also include new precautions to ensure that coronavirus does not impact the launch. NASA has already taken additional steps to limit access to the astronauts, who will undergo a two week quarantine before leaving Earth.

The legions of support staff required for a rocket launch, from flight controllers and astronaut wranglers to meteorologists and security personnel, will need to adopt the masks and physical distancing that have come to define workplaces during the pandemic.

NASA has yet to decide how long the astronauts will remain onboard the ISS once they arrive, as it attempts to juggle crew schedules affected by the flight delays.

If the test flight crew heads home after a few days, as originally envisioned, there will be just a single US astronaut, along with two Russian cosmonauts, onboard the station for about a month, limiting the amount of research that can be done there. That astronaut, Christoper Cassidy, arrived last week, and is scheduled to stay until October. Typically, the ISS has a crew of six, made up of two or three astronauts and cosmonauts joined by space travelers from Canada, Europe or Asia.

If all goes well, another Dragon mission is planned for later this year that will carry four astronauts—three from the United States and one from Japan. But first, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine says that the agency will “look at every nook and cranny of the vehicle” to ensure it is totally prepared for regular operations.

The commercial crew program emerged after the 2011 retirement of the Space Shuttle and the subsequent development by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (now part of Northrop Grumman) of a low-cost space vehicles that could carry cargo to the ISS for NASA. With the US reliant on Russia to ferry humans to low-Earth orbit, NASA officials decided to apply the same model to flying astronauts.

That makes this a huge moment for SpaceX. Since Musk founded the company in 2002 it has been dedicated to human spaceflight and the goal of spreading humanity throughout the solar system. Successfully carrying people to low-Earth orbit will be a major validation for the company, and also open up new business opportunities, including space tourism.

Boeing, the other company working for NASA to develop a crewed spacecraft, is facing a much longer runway than its rival. After its uncrewed dress rehearsal mission failed to reach the ISS in December, Boeing has decided to re-fly that mission in October of this year, which means it is unlikely to attempt a launch with astronauts until 2021.

To commemorate this historic occasion, the Falcon 9 rocket that carries the Dragon to orbit will be emblazoned with a retired NASA logo known affectionately as “the worm

“That’s going to be a big, a big day for our nation, a big day for the world,” Bridenstine told Quartz in February.

This story was updated on 4/21/20 with additional information about SpaceX’s remaining tests.