SpaceX is still one day away from launching astronauts back into orbit from the U.S., but, NASA has already announced the target date for the company's next crewed mission: Aug. 30.
That new launch date, which is subject to change, will hinges on the results of SpaceX's historic Demo-2 launch tomorrow (May 27). Liftoff is set for 4:33 p.m. EDT (2033 GMT).
Demo-2 will mark SpaceX's first launch of a Crew Dragon capsule carrying astronauts — a major moment for NASA's human spaceflight, which has been hitching rides to orbit with Russia since the space shuttles retired in 2011. That reliance makes tomorrow's flight a linchpin launch for the U.S., even as the pandemic caused by the new coronavirus ravages the country, according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
"Our country has been through a lot. But this is a unique moment where all of America can take a moment and look at our country do something stunning again," Bridenstine said during a news conference held today (May 26). "This is a unique opportunity to bring all of America together in one moment in time and say, 'Look at how bright the future is.' That's what this launch is all about."
Bridenstine also argued that SpaceX's Demo-2 test flight carries important implications far beyond low Earth orbit. NASA's ambitious Artemis program, a campaign to land humans at the moon's south pole in 2024, relies on collaborations between NASA and private companies it can hire to support lunar missions that mimic the partnerships underlying the commercial crew program launching tomorrow.
"We are proving out a business model, a public-private partnership business model that ultimately will enable us to go to the moon, this time sustainably," Bridenstine said. NASA recently announced SpaceX, in fact, as one of three companies selected to receive contracts for developing human landing systems for the moon.
That new partnership represents the third between the two organizations, which have been running joint cargo flights to the space station since 2012.
And although the fate of tomorrow's test launch is not yet certain, NASA is already forging ahead on the first full-fledged mission of the crew partnership, dubbed Crew-1, which Bridenstine announced today is targeting an Aug. 30 launch.
Several factors will shape whether that date for the Crew-1 mission holds. Most importantly is that Crew-1 cannot fly until Demo-2 lands: Until the test mission is safely complete, the Crew Dragon capsule will not receive its NASA certification for regular human missions.
Demo-2's duration is currently quite unspecified: NASA has only said that two astronauts on board the flight will spend between one and four months in orbit. The mission's duration is curtailed by the capsule's solar arrays, which are not the version that will be on standard Crew Dragon capsules. Instead, they are only rated to remain safely in space for about 120 days.
The mission duration will also depend on the progress of the Crew-1 capsule, since NASA wants to fly that as soon as is feasible. And while NASA would like to eke out as much crew time as possible from the test flight, the agency will take a promising landing window when it comes, Bridenstine said, rather then try to stretch the solar arrays to their limit.
"There is a lot of flexibility built into the backend of this mission, but that's intentional," Bridenstine said. "I want to reiterate, it is a test flight. The goal is to get them to the International Space Station, test the systems and get them home. If they can do more work than that, while they're on the ISS, certainly that's okay. But this is a test flight."
Meanwhile, the Crew-1 team is already training toward an Aug. 30 launch. Aboard the Crew-1 capsule will be four astronauts: NASA's Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japan's Soichi Noguchi. The crew will remain in orbit for about 6.5 months, the current standard duration of a space station stay.
The four astronauts will join the trio of crewmembers currently living and working on the orbiting laboratory: NASA's Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. Those three astronauts launched in April and are due to return to Earth in October.
Before they return, another Russian Soyuz capsule will launch with a crew including one NASA astronaut, in exchange for more than $90 million from the U.S. space agency. The agency made that purchase in part to ensure that no one at NASA or SpaceX felt compelled to authorize a launch tomorrow against their better judgement.
At any point in the process people can speak up if they have concerns, Bridenstine said, adding that he's wanted to ensure people could raise concerns or call for additional safety measures, whether in relation to the pandemic or the flight itself.
"We've been so diligent about making sure people have the authority to say no, we went ahead and purchased a seat on a Soyuz rocket for October," Bridenstine said. "We did that intentionally because we want people to feel free to say no and not feel any pressure to go on this launch."
Bridenstine added that on Monday (May 25) he texted the astronauts riding on SpaceX's Demo-2 mission — veteran spaceflyers Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — to ask if they could think of any reason or concerns that would warrant a delay.
"They both came back and said 'we're go for launch,'" Bridenstine said. "So, they're ready to go."
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