Update: Wednesday's launch was postponed at the last minute. Read more about the dramatic day here.
Two astronauts will ride a SpaceX rocket from Florida to the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday, marking the first time that humans have traveled to space from American soil in nearly a decade.
In addition to its significance in reviving human space exploration from the U.S., this event will also be the first spaceflight of a commercial spacecraft with astronauts onboard—a major milestone for the private space industry.
“This is a unique moment where all of America can take a moment, and look at our country do something stunning again,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine at a Tuesday press conference. “That is: launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”
This long-anticipated launch is currently scheduled for 4:33 PM EDT on Wednesday, May 27 and will take place at the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, the same spot used by the Apollo missions a half-century ago. You can watch the launch on live broadcasts from either NASA or SpaceX.
Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has relied on Russian launchpads, rockets, and space capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. In its efforts to bring human spaceflight back to the U.S., NASA has been awarding contracts to private spaceflight companies, such as SpaceX and Boeing, to develop a next-generation space launch system for humans.
In the near term, that means these companies will transport humans from the U.S. to the ISS, though the plan is eventually to reach other locations such as the Moon and Mars.
SpaceX has worked as a space cargo hauler for several years, and has launched nearly 20 uncrewed Dragon missions to the ISS, supplying the crew with essential provisions and scientific equipment. Because the Dragon capsules are reusable, the company has simultaneously honed its ability to deliver cargo from the ISS back to Earth. Now, SpaceX is poised to launch the most precious payload of all: Human beings.
It’s a nerve-wracking test of the company’s ability to safely build a propulsive bridge between the U.S. and outer space, and the results of the mission will shape the future of the private space sector as a whole.
While the private sector has played an important role in spaceflight since its origins, commercial space companies are now determining the future of space in unprecedented ways. The long-term vision of SpaceX, as articulated by CEO Elon Musk, is to “open up space to humanity” and ultimately to “create a self-sustaining city on Mars.”
Whether the company, or any spaceflight entity, can reach that horizon is not clear at this point and the lofty language and erratic behavior of these commercial leaders have been met with justifiable skepticism. That said, lower launch costs and faster development timelines are among the presumed advantages that commercial space companies could offer over traditional federal agencies such as NASA or the European Space Agency (ESA).
While federal agencies are irreplaceable sources of public engagement and scientific space exploration—not to mention that they are the main partners and customers of private space companies right now—their agendas can be complicated by the political whims of government administrators.
In contrast, companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Planetary Resources, and Bigelow Aerospace have specific plans to open up new commercial markets in space, such as global broadband internet, resource extraction, or space tourism. Next year, Boeing is expected to launch astronauts in its own commercial crewed vehicle, called Starliner, which will further expand human access to space through private avenues.
It’s important to note that the commercial space sector relies on government investment to develop its technologies and is also subject to evolving intergovernmental regulations concerning spaceflight. However, these companies often have multi-decade business models that are not really bound by shifting public or political interests in the same way that, say, NASA or ESA has a duty to the taxpayer.
As it continues to mature, the commercial spaceflight sphere will become one of the most powerful forces shaping the 21st century spacescape. The success of companies like SpaceX hinges on key moments like this approaching launch, which will demonstrate that human spaceflight can advance beyond the largely governmental structures that have contained it up until now. This will expand the role of profit motives in spaceflight, which may reshuffle the influence of more traditional factors, such as geopolitical rivalries or pursuit of scientific capital.
NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken will be the first team to fly the SpaceX vehicle, called the Crew Dragon, into outer space. Assuming that liftoff is not delayed, Hurley and Behnken will enter the Crew Dragon today, which is currently perched on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The rocket will blast off, reaching speeds of approximately 17,000 miles per hour, before delivering the Crew Dragon to orbit.
The first stage booster of the Falcon 9 is then expected to return to Earth, landing on a drone ship in the ocean, while the crewed capsule continues to the ISS.
Behnken, who serves as the joint operations commander of the mission, has visited the ISS twice before on Space Shuttle missions in 2008 and 2010. Hurley, who will serve as spacecraft commander of the mission, also piloted two Space Shuttle flights, including the swan song of this iconic spacecraft in 2011. As a member of both the last crew to fly the Space Shuttle and the first crew of its successor spacecraft, there’s a fitting continuity to his assignment.
Hurley and Behnken are slated to arrive and dock at the station on Thursday, and will join the ISS crew for several weeks, or even months, in orbit.
What happens in the months and years following this launch is unpredictable, especially given the global disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. But though the sight of crewed launches returning to familiar Apollo turf may be a cause for some nostalgia about the American space program, it also signals a new age of space exploration that will be drastically different from anything before it.