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NASA, SpaceX target historic spaceflight despite pandemic
By Ivan Couronne
Washington (AFP) May 2, 2020

Astronauts anticipate first crewed launch from U.S. soil in nine years
Washington DC (UPI) May 01, 2020 - The two astronauts who are to begin a new era of human spaceflight from U.S. soil this month said Friday they hope to inspire generations of Americans.

It is time again "to be watching American rockets launching from the Florida coast to the International Space Station," said Doug Hurley, who will be launched May 27 on the first crewed mission from this country since he piloted the final space shuttle mission in 2011.

Hurley and Bob Behnken also will be the first astronauts to lift off on a privately owned space vehicle -- a Falcon 9 rocket that carries a Crew Dragon capsule, both built by Elon Musk's SpaceX.

The astronauts said they were pleased to learn only recently they would spend a longer time than previously planned on the International Space Station. NASA announced Friday that their mission, originally designed for a few days in space as a demonstration, would last for weeks or months.

Behnken noted he would be flying on the first new crewed spacecraft for NASA since the first shuttle was launched in 1981.

"It's probably a dream of every test pilot school student to have the opportunity to fly on a brand-new spaceship, and I'm lucky enough to get that opportunity," he said.

The mission also comes under restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The astronauts and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine urged Americans to stay home for the launch and not come to the Kennedy Space Center area.

"We want everyone to enjoy this as a moment in U.S. space history, but we want them to enjoy it from a distance," Behnken said.

When the two astronauts arrive, they will help the existing three-member crew on the space station change batteries and handle spacewalks. That crew has one U.S. astronaut, Chris Cassidy, and two cosmonauts.

"There's a lot of work and activity that can be done in the U.S. segment -- certainly more than one person can accomplish on their own," Behnken said. "I wouldn't be, you know, probably a real astronaut if I didn't say I was looking forward to the possibility of doing some spacewalks. That'll be some icing on the cake for us."

The mission is part of the final certification process before Crew Dragon provides ongoing shuttle service to the space station. The two astronauts will be the first since the last Apollo landing in 1972 to come back to Earth with a splashdown just off Florida's Atlantic Coast.

"We do expect [splashdown] to be a little bit softer than a Soyuz landing, but definitely harder than a space shuttle landing and then ... well, we'll tell you about it in the post-landing press conference," Behnken said.

NASA and SpaceX said Friday they were pressing ahead with plans to launch astronauts to space from US soil for the first time in nearly a decade later on this month, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, both veterans of the Space Shuttle program that was shuttered in 2011, will blast off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on May 27.

Should the mission succeed, the US will have achieved its goal of no longer having to buy seats on Russian Soyuz rockets to give its astronauts rides to the International Space Station (ISS).

It is also an important stage in NASA's new economic model: the space agency has spent billions on contracts with both SpaceX and Boeing to develop spaceships that will each have to make six round trips to the ISS.

The model is supposed to save taxpayers from financial black holes of past programs, as well as some still to come -- notably the giant Space Launch System rocket that is supposed to take NASA back to the Moon but is plagued by cost overrun and scheduling delays.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters that the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule will be only the fifth class of US spacecraft to take humans into orbit, after the storied Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.

"If you look globally, this will be the ninth time in history when we put humans on a brand new spacecraft," said Bridenstine.

"We're going to do it here in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. I'm going to tell you this is a high priority mission for the United States of America," he added.

Behnken and Hurley, who have been training for the "Demo-2" mission for years, will dock with the International Space Station (ISS) and remain there for between one to four months, depending on when the next mission takes place, said NASA's Steve Stich.

Crew Dragon is able to remain in orbit for around four months (119 days).

Hurley, who was the pilot on the last Space Shuttle mission, admitted it was "disappointing" that the launch won't be a public affair, with crowds discouraged from gathering at Cape Canaveral to witness the spectacle.

"We won't have the luxury of our family and friends being there at Kennedy to watch the launch but it's obviously, the right thing to do in the current environment," he said.

- Win for SpaceX -

The mission is a major milestone for SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk, who also leads and founded Tesla.

His firm, which was started in 2002, has now overtaken aerospace behemoth Boeing, which failed in the uncrewed demonstration mission of its Starliner spacecraft last year and will have to start over.

SpaceX, which has received billions of dollars from NASA since the late 2000s, has been supplying cargo to the ISS since 2012, and has established itself as the leader in the private space sector thanks to its reusable rocket, the Falcon 9.

"I'll feel a little relief when they're in orbit, I'll feel more relief when they get to the station and then obviously, I will start sleeping again when they're back safely on the planet Earth," said Gwynne Shotwell, the company's chief operating officer.

The pandemic has, naturally, impacted the program, but Shotwell said all precautions were being taken to protect the astronauts.

"We are ensuring that only essential personnel are near them. They're wearing masks and gloves. We're cleaning the training facility twice daily.

"I think we're really doing a great job to ensure that we are not impacting the safety or the health of the astronauts' lives."

Half of SpaceX's engineers have been teleworking, and on the day of the launch, NASA personnel in the mission control room will be spaced six feet (two meters) apart.

Takeoff is scheduled for 4:42 pm (2042 GMT) on May 27, with space station docking scheduled about 19 hours later, on May 28.




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The cargo rocket MS-14 will deliver food, medical supplies, fuel and other equipment to the International Space Station, along with a flash drive containing the names of the Soviet soldiers who took part in the Second World War. An MS-14 cargo spacecraft is docking at the International Space Station on Saturday. Earlier, the "Victory Rocket" was launched from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome. The flight is set to deliver food, medical supplies, fuel and other equipment, as well as a fl ... read more

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