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NASA And SpaceX Prepare To Launch Astronauts On New Spaceship

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The Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are set to launch on Wednesday afternoon.
SpaceX

The Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are set to launch on Wednesday afternoon.

Updated at 12:30 p.m. ET

NASA and SpaceX appear to have brushed aside concerns about the weather as they prepare to launch two astronauts to the International Space Station later today. It will be the first-ever crewed mission for the commercial spaceflight company, and the first launch of NASA astronauts from American soil since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011.

Earlier Wednesday, weather spawned by Tropical Storm Bertha — which made landfall in South Carolina — caused concern that the launch might be scrubbed.

"We are go for launch!" NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted shortly after noon Wednesday. He said NASA and SpaceX "will continue monitoring liftoff and downrange weather as we step into the countdown."

Speaking at a pre-launch briefing earlier in the week, Bridenstine called the historic launch "a big moment in time."

"It's been 9 years since we've had this opportunity," he said.

At 4:33 p.m. ET, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are scheduled to lift off from pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida. They will be making the trip to space aboard SpaceX's Dragon crew capsule, the first time astronauts have ever traveled to the station aboard a private spaceship.

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President Trump will be in attendance for the launch, and will deliver post-launch remarks inside NASA's massive Vehicle Assembly building, according to the space agency.

The Dragon capsule resembles the cone-shaped spacecraft of earlier generations, with some snazzy updates, such as a gleaming white exterior and on the inside, touchscreen control panels. It will sit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket — the company's workhorse launch vehicle that has successfully flown 83 times since 2010.

To some observers, the setup may look retrograde compared to the enormous space shuttle, which could fly back to earth on wings. "We do think of winged vehicles landing like an airplane, as something that was more futuristic than a capsule on top of a rocket," says Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator and CEO of Earthrise Alliance, an educational non-profit.

But the capsule design has considerable safety advantages. Unlike the shuttle, it sits on top of the rocket, therefore avoiding debris that can fall off during launch — a problem that doomed the Space Shuttle Columbia in a 2003 launch. The position also makes it easy to eject the capsule if the rocket itself runs into trouble.

"These are safer systems," Garver says.

That's not to say that SpaceX hasn't had safety hurdles to overcome. In 2015, one of its uncrewed rockets exploded on the way to the space station. An accident review panel later concluded the failure was caused by a steel eyebolt that broke off inside the vehicle. In April 2019, a crew capsule exploded during a test of its launch abort rockets. An accident investigation concluded that a highly reactive oxidizer had leaked into a part of the rocket motors it was not supposed to be in.

Still, SpaceX has had a good record overall. It has been flying cargo capsules to the space station since 2012, and the timeline for today's launch looks very similar to those earlier missions.

Hurley and Behnken will board the spacecraft about two hours before liftoff. The hatch will be sealed and the astronauts strapped in. Then, with about a half hour to go, the Falcon 9 rocket will be fueled with liquid oxygen and kerosene. After launch, it will take around 12 minutes for the astronauts to get into orbit, and around 18 hours to reach the space station. The first stage of the Falcon 9, meanwhile, will re-enter Earth's atmosphere and attempt to land on a floating drone ship.

The Dragon spacecraft is designed to be fully automatic, but during the flight, Behnken and Hurley are expected to test manual flight systems to make sure the spacecraft behaves as expected.

The duo will remain in space for between one month and four months before climbing back aboard the capsule and returning to Earth. The Dragon capsule will splash down in the Atlantic Ocean using four parachutes — the first time a water landing has been made by astronauts since the Apollo era.

For Garver, who was at NASA when the shuttle touched down for the last time, a successful launch will mark a new era for America in space. She says she thinks that NASA's programs have been hindered by politics and bureaucracy.

"The space program has been held back by trying to do things to keep jobs in certain [congressional] districts," Garver says. Turning part of the spaceflight mission over to private companies like SpaceX "is going to allow us hopefully to break out of that, and to have a better future."

Bridenstine says he hopes the launch will bring people together. "That's what these launches can do," he says. "It's not going to just unite Republicans and Democrats, it's going to unite the world."

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