NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine took to Twitter on Friday to announce that, after almost nine years, astronauts will finally once again launch into space from American soil. And you have Elon Musk to thank for that. His rocket and spaceflight company, SpaceX, has captured headlines and imaginations thanks to the Falcon 9 rocket’s ability to send its first stage back into the atmosphere to land upright on the ground or a robotic barge in the ocean. It’s a technical achievement that nothing at his other company, Tesla, can touch. Sorry, folks, the Model S sedan’s Plaid Mode is really cool, but it ain’t rocket science.
The spacecraft, called the Crew Dragon, is a human-rated capsule and the successor to the original unmanned Dragon cargo craft. It’s one of two craft that NASA has selected to take astronauts into space, the other being the Boeing-developed CST-100 Starliner—which, incidentally, launches on non-reusable Atlas V rockets. But with Bridenstine’s announcement that the first Crew Dragon mission, Demo-2, will lift off on May 27th, 2020, NASA is jumping SpaceX ahead of its Boeing competitor.
The flight crew is Col. Doug Hurley, the pilot of the final Space Shuttle mission, and another Space Shuttle veteran Bob Behnken. Their Crew Dragon will launch on a rated Falcon 9 rocket, meaning that both the Crew Dragon spacecraft and the first stage of the Falcon will be recovered and reused.
Not that the Dragon program has been without issue. The Crew Dragon has flow in space before, on a mission to the International Space Station without crew. While that was successful, that specific Crew Dragon capsule failed spectacularly during a flight abort test and was destroyed. This issue was identified and the spacecraft was altered, but it was a worrying failure for a spacecraft designed to carry crew. The fix was apparently good enough for NASA, since it’s now given the crewed flight the go-ahead.
Don’t expect this date to be set in stone, and that’s no dig at Tesla’s propensity for missing announced launch dates. Weather issues at the Kennedy Space Center, where the Falcon 9 will lift off carrying the Demo-2 crew, could cause a delay. As could issues with the spacecraft, which is still very new.
Whatever your personal take on Tesla is, it’s neat to see Elon Musk’s other company on the verge of a major moment in American spaceflight. We’ve been launching our astronauts on Soyuz spacecraft operating out of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan since the Space Shuttle stopped flying. We’ll be excitedly watching the Demo-2 mission launch in May.
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