Two astronauts will ride a privately built rocket and spacecraft to orbit Wednesday afternoon. This marks the first launch of humans from U.S. soil in nearly a decade.
A spaceship carrying two crew members will blast off on a rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It will launch just after 4:30 pm.
The flight will be bound for the International Space Station (ISS). It will be the first time that U.S. astronauts have launched from American soil since the final flight of the space shuttle program in 2011.
It will also be the first time that anyone has flown to space using a commercially built crew capsule and rocket.
Much changed after humans last flew to space from the nation. Although the U.S. and Russia are at odds politically, both countries have isolated their space program from politics.
Both countries have continued a strong partnership to fly NASA astronauts to the ISS onboard Russian Soyuz rockets. However, the life-protecting pressurized suits have changed as the new flight’s two astronauts will not wear the fluorescent orange jumpsuits.
Instead, NASA veterans Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will be clad in sleek, monochrome one-piece outfits. The outfits are lightweight, more maneuverable, and an upgraded look.
The suits, mission’s Crew Dragon capsule, and reusable Falcon 9 rocket were designed and manufactured by aerospace company SpaceX. For the test flight, Behnken and Hurley will ride in an all-electric Model X sport utility vehicle.
The car will be provided by SpaceX’s sister company Tesla.
The Future Is Now
As the federal government seeks cheaper, safer, and more reliable access to orbit, they are not directly building and operating fleets of spaceships and rockets.
“It is going to enable us to not just go to the moon but to go sustainably, with reusable landers, to the surface of the moon,” said NASA chief Jim Bridenstine during a recent press conference. “All of this, ultimately, is to get to Mars.”
The new normal is to spend tax dollars on launch services provided by private companies. All previous human spaceflight programs have been based on systems developed, owned, and run by government space agencies.
Now, via its Commercial Crew program, NASA is instead of buying seats and stowage on SpaceX assets. That strategy should free up funds for the agency to spend on other projects like deep-space exploration and transformative science missions.
These endeavors are currently out of reach for private enterprise.
SpaceX, founded by technology entrepreneur and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, had to learn how to work with NASA. After a Falcon 9 rocket exploded during launch on June 28, 2015, destroying a cargo ship bound for the ISS, the relationship was tested further.
However, in the aftermath of that accident, SpaceX sought—and found—a strong technical shoulder to lean on at NASA.
The hope is that federal investment in low-cost, reliable, and safe space transportation will spur rapid innovation; creating entirely new opportunities for economic growth.
NASA has pumped more than $8.2 billion into the Commercial Crew program since its inception in 2010. Most of those funds have gone to Boeing and SpaceX, which were each awarded development and flight-service contracts in 2014.
This commercial partnership approach has saved the agency some $20 billion to $30 billion according to NASA’s commercial spaceflight director Phil McAlister.