NASA gave the green light on Friday to the May 27 launch of two astronauts aboard a SpaceX rocket, a crucial step in breaking American dependence on Russia since 2011 for access to the International Space Station (ISS).
Senior officials from the space agency and the company founded by Elon Musk in 2002 had been meeting since Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to verify that everything was ready and safe for the first flight of the brand-new SpaceX capsule, Crew Dragon, with passengers on board.
“All systems and subsystems have been assessed and in the end we approved the green light”said NASA boss Jim Bridenstine at a space center virtual press conference in an empty newsroom due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley have been in strict quarantine since May 13, but their solitary confinement began in mid-March, they said.
“No other space crew has been in quarantine longer than we have in history”said Doug Hurley. They’ve been tested twice for the new coronavirus, and “According to rumor, we will still be tested before takeoff”, he added.
As for maintaining the mission despite the containment problems, Bob Behnken philosophized: ” When we want we can “.
When NASA asked crowds not to come to the launch in Florida, Jim Bridenstine said it was “Also a time to do amazing things as a nation and inspire the whole world“.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will propel the two men to the skies on May 27 at 4:33 p.m. (8:33 p.m. GMT), heading for the space station where they will dock the next day.
It will be the first time that American astronauts have taken off from the United States since the end of the space shuttles in 2011, after 30 years of service.
Since then, only the Russians have had a means of transport to the ISS, and dozens of American astronauts (and other countries) have learned Russian and borrowed the Soyuz rockets, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, to get to the station, permanently occupied since 2000 by Americans and Russians.
Private public partnership
NASA has funded, since the presidency of Barack Obama, SpaceX ($ 3.1 billion in contracts) and Boeing ($ 4.9 billion) to restore independent access to space for the United States. The program was originally scheduled to take over from the shuttles in 2015.
A delay that Neil Armstrong, the first man to have walked on the Moon, already judged in 2010 “Humiliating and unacceptable”. Finally, the break will have lasted almost nine years – provided that the SpaceX flight goes well.
Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken have been training for five years on the Crew Dragon, during state-of-the-art Apollo capsules from the 1960s. Inside, touch screens have replaced buttons and joysticks. Unlike the shuttles, the capsule has an emergency ejection system in the event of a problem with the rocket taking off.
In several months, Crew Dragon will return to land in the ocean, like Apollo, slowed down by four huge parachutes.
Once the capsules have been approved, SpaceX and Boeing will each have to travel six times for four astronauts to the ISS.
If SpaceX succeeds in the mission which will launch next week, called Demo-2 after Demo-1 which took place without incident in March 2019 with a mannequin, it would become the first private company to have transported astronauts to the ISS .
Boeing, which is developing the Starliner capsule, missed its unmanned test mission in December and will have to start it again.
Cooperation with Russia is not going to end abruptly: NASA intends to continue to fly a few Americans on Silks. Non Americans will travel to the future in Dragon.
SpaceX also wants to send tourists to space: a mission with three private passengers is planned for the second half of 2021. The ticket will no doubt be worth tens of millions of dollars.