The first manned spaceflight to launch from the United States since 2011 is slated to take off on Wednesday, depending on the weather.
“We are once again launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Jim Bridenstine, the administrator of NASA, told reporters at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday. “This is a big moment in time. It’s been nine years since we had this opportunity.”
The chances for favorable weather for launch increased to 60 percent, NASA officials said about 24 hours before the instantaneous launch window opens.
If the flight requires delay, backup windows were identified on May 30 and May 31.
Since 2011, American astronauts going to the International Space Station took off from Russia. They’ll now depart from the United States on SpaceX capsules, powered by rockets that can land on platforms and be partially reused.
California-based SpaceX, founded by billionaire Elon Musk, will be the first private company to fly humans to the space station. Orbiting about 250 miles above Earth, the station—about the size of a football field—typically houses six astronauts who conduct scientific experiments.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will propel the Crew Dragon capsule carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the station, accelerating to a speed of approximately 17,000 miles per hour during a trip that will take around 24 hours.
The mission, Demo-2, is the final step in certifying the capsule for longer missions, with plans to reach the Moon and Mars in coming years.
NASA built and operated its own spacecraft for decades until the end of the space shuttle program on July 8, 2011. The space agency is shifting into the role of a customer, purchasing rockets, capsule, and other crafts from SpaceX, with interest in doing the same with other companies in the future.
Plans are well underway for Crew Dragon’s second operational mission, set for an August launch. One of the astronauts on that capsule will be Japanese, Bridenstine said.
Most slots on the station are taken by Americans or Russians. The two countries each own half of the station, which was built over 10 years starting in 1998.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will be among those watching in-person at the space center. The number of viewers there will be reduced because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Crew Dragon will remain at the space station for an undetermined amount of time before taking Hurley and Behnken back to Earth.
The main priority of the mission is to test the capsule and get the astronauts to the station and back safely.
The solar arrays on the capsule are limited to about 114 days, according to Bridenstine. Forecasters and engineers also need to pinpoint a day with proper weather for the flight back.
“If we have a good window to come home, and they’re not necessary on the International Space Station, we will be taking it,” he said.
Behnken, 49, a former U.S. Air Force test pilot, flew twice to the International Space Station, most recently in February 2010, logging more than 708 hours in space.
“I’m just really excited,” Behnken said in a press conference on May 1. Calling it “a dream of every test pilot school student to fly on a brand new spaceship,” he said he wished his son was with him.
Hurley, 53, a former fighter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps, also flew twice to space.
“We as astronauts, you cherish every flight assignment if you want to continue to fly in space,” Hurley said. “I’m excited to be a part of the mission.”