What was supposed to be a two-week test flight of the new SpaceX astronaut transport capsule will now be a mission that is expected to last more than a month to help a small crew on board the International Space Station.
The launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, carrying two NASA astronauts, Douglas G. Hurley and Robert L. Behnken, is scheduled for May 27 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He would arrive at the space station the next day.
“This is a high priority mission for the United States of America,” said Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator at a press conference on Friday.
This will end a nearly nine year drought since the last time people headed for orbit over American soil. On July 8, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis took off from Launchpad 39A; he returned to Earth 11 days later. Since then, NASA has relied on Russia and its Soyuz rockets for transport to and from the space station.
Bridenstine noted that this would only be the fifth time that NASA astronauts have flown on a new spacecraft for the first time. The previous ones were Mercury, Gemini and Apollo in the 1960s and the space shuttle in 1981.
“We must not lose sight of the fact that this is a test flight,” said Mr. Bridenstine. “We do this to learn things. And it’s also true that we take it very, very seriously from a security perspective. “
Like the last shuttle mission, the launch will take place at 39A, but almost everything else will be different. Instead of designing and operating his own spaceship like he did for space shuttles and previous programs such as the Apollo moon landings, NASA turned to two private companies, SpaceX and Boeing.
For SpaceX, the May flight is the final step in certifying that its spacecraft meets the needs and requirements of NASA. As the Crew Dragon approaches the space station, for example, the astronauts will test the piloting of the spacecraft by manual control before letting its automated system dock.
The two astronauts will also be able to use the capsule’s toilets during the 19 hours from launch to docking at the space station. “Toilet?” Said Mr. Hurley. “We will let you know how it works. They have one. We will try it and let you know when we get back.”
Currently, there are only three astronauts on board the International Space Station – two Russians, Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagnerand a NASA astronaut, Christopher J. Cassidy. The station’s small crew is concerned with maintenance tasks, which limits the amount of scientific research that can be done.
NASA officials have decided to extend Mr. Hurley and Mr. Behnken’s stay at the space station so that they can assist Mr. Cassidy. The SpaceX capsule is currently certified to remain in orbit for 119 days. Over time, the oxygen atoms in the upper atmosphere react with the materials in the capsule’s solar panels, reducing the amount of energy they generate.
The length of stay also depends on the status of the next Crew Dragon, the first operational mission designated Crew-1, which is to take four astronauts to the space station later this year. SpaceX and NASA need the Crew Dragon demo to return to Earth to certify that the spacecraft meets NASA’s safety requirements and that it is ready to begin routine missions.
“It’s a compromise,” said Kirk A. Shireman, NASA’s space station program manager. “What we would like to do from a space point of view is to keep them in orbit for as long as possible until the Crew-1 vehicle is about to leave.”