Two NASA astronauts arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday, one week before they blast off aboard a SpaceX vessel — the first crewed space flight to leave from US soil in nine years.
US astronauts have been flying to the International Space Station (ISS) on Russian Soyuz rockets since the shuttle program ended in 2011 — a dependence they are keen to break.
SpaceX vessels to replace Russian ones
“It has been a long road,” said Douglas Hurley, who will be one of the astronauts and was also on the last shuttle flight.
He and astronaut Robert Behnken will be the first humans to fly on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which was tested with a dummy last year.
The Crew Dragon will take off from Kennedy with help from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and dock at the ISS, which is currently housing two Russians and one other American.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft are currently emerging from the hangar at launch pad 39A in Florida in preparation for liftoff next week with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) May 21, 2020
“This is an awesome time to be an astronaut, with a new spacecraft,” Behnken said during a press conference in Florida.
The two arrived in Florida on a NASA jet after being in quarantine since May 13 in Houston in an effort to protect themselves and those aboard the ISS from the novel coronavirus.
Space plan only the fifth such of US history: NASA
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine — who refrained from shaking hands with the pair — reiterated that it was only the fifth time in history that the United States would launch a new space flight program.
It is the first program to be carried out as a public-private partnership — with SpaceX producing the Crew Dragon spacecraft and Boeing producing the Starliner.
To limit public spending, NASA financed development of the spacecrafts but has signed contracts with the companies to ensure six round-trip flights to the ISS.
The US government has taken much pride in sending Americans into space in American made rockets. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted that the whole administration was proud of the fact that now Americans would go to space within capsules made in the USA, which fulfils a pledge of Make in America by the administration.
Honored to chair the National Space Council meeting today. Under President @realDonaldTrump’s leadership and because of the hard work of everyone at @NASA, the United States is once again launching American astronauts into space on American rockets from American soil. 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/qxFzdHCRfw
— Mike Pence (@Mike_Pence) May 19, 2020
No crowds to see off departing astronauts
In another difference from the previous programs, the May 27 launch will occur without the usual crowds of spectators due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
NASA does not want to risk people aboard the ISS falling prey to the novel Coronavirus, because getting help to them would be costlier than providing help to someone on Earth.
NASA under pressure from Trump
NASA is already under pressure from President Donald Trump who has instructed the space agency to return to the moon by 2024, accelerating an already risky undertaking.
The head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, Doug Loverro, abruptly resigned Tuesday after only six months on the job, in a move possibly related to procurement of spacecraft for the Artemis lunar mission.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk