It’s been a long time since the country that once flew nine crewed missions to the moon has been able to launch even a single human being to space aboard its own rockets from its own soil. Ever since the final flight of the space shuttle in July 2011, the U.S. has been dependent on buying rides aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft—at a current $80 million a seat—if it wants to get as far as low-Earth orbit.
All of that is set to change at 3:22 PM EDT on Saturday, May 30, when astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are scheduled to make their second attempt at taking off aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket, bound for the International Space Station (ISS). Both astronauts are veterans of two previous shuttle flights, and Hurley, fittingly, was one of the crew members aboard the final shuttle mission. If all goes to plan, the crew will reach orbit just 12 minutes after launch, and will dock with the station before noon the following morning. You can watch the launch above.
Saturday’s flight has been a long time in coming. It was in 2010 that NASA began its commercial crew program and in 2016 that it awarded contracts worth $2.6 billion to SpaceX and $4.2 billion to Boeing, charging both companies with the task of developing crew vehicles capable of shuttling astronauts to and from the ISS, freeing NASA up to focus on crewed missions to the moon and Mars.
Early estimates called for flights to begin as early as 2016, but the schedules slipped and slipped and slipped again, with NASA increasingly chafing at the delays. Boeing’s spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, is not expected to have its first crewed flight until sometime in early 2021, but a SpaceX success this week will lift both companies, proving the commercial crew model was a sound idea in the first place.
Behnken and Hurley will join a crew of one astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts already aboard the station. How long the new arrivals will stay is unclear. At a minimum they are expected to be aloft for at least a month; at the most, they’ll stay just shy of four months. Boeing will in part determine how long they stay. When the company is ready to fly its next uncrewed test of the Starliner, the Crew Dragon will have to leave to free up the necessary docking port. In no event is this version of the Crew Dragon certified to spend more than 110 days in space, though in the future the ship will have to be fit for 210.
Bad weather could always scrub the launch once again, as it did on Wednesday’s first attempt. So could any number of last minute technical glitches. But with the rocket poised on the pad, the country itself is poised for a new chapter in its long story of space exploration.
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