NASA, SpaceX bringing astronaut launches back to home turf

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(NASA/Bill Ingalls) For copyright and restrictions refer to - http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/guidelines/index.html

FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2019 file photo, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, left, and Bob Behnken work with teams from NASA and SpaceX to rehearse crew extraction from SpaceX's Crew Dragon, which will be used to carry humans to the International Space Station, at the Trident Basin in Cape Canaveral, Fla. For the first time in nearly a decade, astronauts are about to blast into orbit aboard an American rocket from American soil. And for the first time in the history of human spaceflight, a private company -- SpaceX -- is providing the ride. (Bill Ingalls/NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – For the first time in nearly a decade, U.S. astronauts are about to blast into orbit aboard an American rocket from American soil. And for the first time in the history of human spaceflight, a private company is running the show.

Elon Musk's SpaceX is the conductor and NASA the customer as businesses begin chauffeuring astronauts to the International Space Station.

The curtain rises next Wednesday with the scheduled liftoff of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule with two NASA astronauts, a test flight years in the making.

The drama unfolds from the exact spot where men flew to the moon and the last space shuttle soared from Kennedy Space Center.

While Florida's Space Coast has seen plenty of launches since the shuttle's farewell tour in 2011 — even at the height of the coronavirus pandemic — they were for satellites, robotic explorers and space station supplies. The only route to orbit for astronauts was on Russian rockets.

NASA’s newest test pilots, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, are launching from home turf with SpaceX presiding over the countdown.

“Getting a chance again to see human spaceflight in our own backyard," Behnken said. “That’s the thing that’s most exciting for me.”

The cosmic-size shift to private companies allows NASA to zero in on deep space travel. The space agency is busting to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 under orders from the White House, a deadline looking increasingly unlikely even as three newly chosen commercial teams rush to develop lunar landers. Mars also beckons.