On Wednesday May 27 a Falcon 9 rocket will blast off from Florida carrying two astronauts in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft to test the craft and its emergency procedures.
Lifting off from Launch Pad 39A, the Falcon will accelerate to around 17,000mph and put it on an intercept course with the International Space Station. It’s the first manned launch from the US mainland since the end of the Space Shuttle program.
While NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will still be packed snugly in the capsule, NASA and SpaceX’s mission control rooms have been specially rearranged to take into account coronavirus social distancing measures.
This is the first time that NASA astronauts have been sent to space on a commercial craft.
At a press conference ahead of the mission, Hurley explained that this mission will be a first test of a whole range of new technology including the spacecraft’s touch-screen controls, the life support systems and even the new-design spacesuits: “As far as the toilet, we’ll let you know how it works out. They have one, we’ll try it, and we’ll let you know,” he said.
Fellow crew member Behnken added that this is a real acid test: “The big difference for us is that the vehicle that we’re going on has never flown before with crew.
“It’s all been walked through, but never with any real danger.”
Another big difference from previous missions is that for reasons of social distancing the traditional live audience for manned space launches has been discouraged.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “Having huge crowds of hundreds of thousands of people at Kennedy Space Centre, now is not the time for that. We are asking people to watch from home.”
No set duration for the mission has been announced.
NASA say “although the Crew Dragon being used for this flight test can stay in orbit about 110 days, the specific mission duration will be determined once on station based on the readiness of the next commercial crew launch.”
The mission could last "anywhere from about a month to nearly four months," according Steve Stich at NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
This pivotal mission is the final major step before Crew Dragon is officially certified for regular missions to the ISS. The capsule will also be a key component in NASA’s Artemis program, which is scheduled to land the first man and woman on the Moon in 2024.