On Wednesday, May 27, SpaceX is set to achive a goal 18 years in the making – launching humans to space.
In 2002, Elon Musk founded the company with his sights set on human spaceflight. Now in a matter of days, the Demo-2 mission will see the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida with two astronauts on board, NASA’s Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, for the first time.
It will be the first launch of humans to orbit from American soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in July 2011, and the beginning of an exciting new era of human spaceflight.
Here’s how it’s all going to go down.
This is the first launch of a private spacecraft carrying astronauts to orbit in history. SpaceX was funded by NASA to build the spacecraft, called Crew Dragon, over the past decade.
When is the launch?
Crew Dragon is scheduled to lift-off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 4.33 P.M. Eastern Time on Wednesday, May 27. Backup launch opportunities are available on Saturday, May 30 and Sunday, May 31.
Where is the mission going?
The spacecraft will head for the International Space Station (ISS), about 400 kilometers above Earth. After the launch it will take Crew Dragon about 19 hours to reach the ISS.
Who are the two people on board?
Both are NASA astronauts. Doug Hurley is the mission’s commander, while Bob Behnken is the joint operations commander for the mission. They have both flown to space several times before.
Why are they launching during the coronavirus pandemic?
It’s just unfortunate timing. People have been waiting years for the launch, and it just so happens that it is ready to go now. NASA and SpaceX have both been keen to keep the launch on track despite the pandemic.
The two astronauts have been in quarantine for weeks prior to the launch, and have adhered to strict social distancing measures to avoid catching COVID-19 or carrying the virus to the space station.
How can I watch the launch?
Excitingly, people in the U.K. and Europe should have a chance to see the spacecraft. It is expected to fly past the Moon in the night sky about 20 to 30 minutes after launch, appearing as a dot of light moving across the sky.
What will happen after the launch?
It will take about 12 minutes for Crew Dragon to reach its initial orbit, before it then gradually raises its orbit and flies autonomously towards the ISS.
The spacecraft is designed to dock autonomously with the space station at 11.29 A.M. Eastern Time on Thursday, May 28, although Hurley will briefly control the spacecraft manually to test it beforehand.
The astronauts will open the hatches and enter the ISS at 1.55 P.M. Eastern Time. They will join NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, who are currently on the ISS.
What will happen to the rocket?
The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket will come back for a landing on SpaceX’s drone ship Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic Ocean, roughly eight minutes after the launch.
What happens if something goes wrong during the Demo-2 launch?
Crew Dragon will use emergency thrusters to fire away from the Falcon 9 rocket, known as a launch abort. SpaceX tested this system earlier this year by blowing up a Falcon 9 rocket mid-flight.
The spacecraft would then use its parachutes to safely drop into one of several recovery zones in the Atlantic Ocean stretching from Florida to the western Irish coast.
What will the astronauts do on the ISS?
They will be part of the ISS crew, just like astronauts on any Soyuz launch. They will live and work on the space station with the other astronauts for the duration of their mission.
How long will Crew Dragon stay on the ISS?
That isn’t clear yet. The spacecraft will stay for at least one month, but it could stay for up to four months. The precise time will depend on how the spacecraft handles being in space, and how the next mission to the ISS progresses.
What’s that mission?
That would be the Crew-1 mission. While Demo-2 is in essence a test mission, Crew-1 will be SpaceX’s first fully operational crewed mission to fly to the ISS. On board will be NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, along with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.
What will happen at the end of the Demo-2 mission?
Crew Dragon will undock from the station, and a day later it will then re-enter our atmosphere after getting rid of its service module and solar arrays. Its heat shield will bear brunt of re-entry and keep the astronauts safe.
The spacecraft will use four parachute to slow its descent, eventually splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean where it and its astronauts will be recovered.
Why is this mission such a big deal?
It’s the culmination of a decade of funding from NASA in an effort to commercialize the transport of astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO). SpaceX is one of two companies, the other being Boeing, that has been funded in this Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) programme.
It will also return orbital launches to the U.S. since the final Space Shuttle flight, Atlantis, back in July 2011. Since then NASA has been paying Russia for trips to space on its Soyuz spacecraft, at a recent cost of more than $90 million per seat.
How much money did SpaceX get from NASA to develop Crew Dragon?
SpaceX was given $2.6 billion, and Boeing $4.2 billion for its Starliner spacecraft. However, the cost-savings for NASA compared to developing their own comparable spacecraft and rocket is estimated to be in the tens of billions.
What will Crew Dragon be used for in the future?
SpaceX is under contract with NASA to take astronauts to and from the ISS on multiple missions. However, Crew Dragon can seat seven people. Thus, SpaceX plans to let space tourists pay for seats as well.
Already several people have signed up, at a cost of no less than $20 million per seat – including, possibly, Tom Cruise. In the future SpaceX is expected to conduct more and more private flights, including to destinations other than the ISS, such as maybe orbiting space hotels and private space stations.
Well, apart from more Crew Dragon flights in the future, we’re expecting Boeing to launch humans on its Starliner spacecraft for the first time no earlier than spring 2021.
SpaceX, meanwhile, is developing a new spacecraft called Starship to take humans to the Moon and Mars. But first they will need to prove they can safely launch humans to space, starting with Crew Dragon on Wednesday.