HOUSTON – SpaceX and NASA will attempt to bring human spaceflight back to U.S. soil for the first time since the Shuttle Program retired in 2011. NASA and SpaceX held a series of media briefings Friday online to preview the historic flight.
SpaceX Demo-2 Mission
This mission will be a flight test and a major milestone for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The lift-off is scheduled for May 27 at 3:32 p.m. (CT). Shuttle-era veterans and now Demo-2 Joint Operations Commander Robert Behnken and Demo-2 Spacecraft Commander Doug Hurley will lead the mission. They will launch from Cape Canaveral at the Kennedy Space Center inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 Rocket, also made by SpaceX. Behnken and Hurley are expected to get to the space station May 28 and will join Expedition 63 commander NASA Astronaut Chris Cassidy as well as flight engineers Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner who are with the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
The Significance of Demo-2
″This is a new generation, a new era in human spaceflight," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “We as a nation have not had our own access to the ISS for 9 years. At the same time, we have had American astronauts on the ISS for 20 years in a row.”
Bridenstine said this is the 5th time in U.S. history that humans will fly on a brand new spacecraft system and the 9th time in world history.
“Fundamentally, this is what SpaceX was founded for. Our goal is to take people to space to make like multi-planetary,” Benji Reed, SpaceX Crew Mission Management, said.
This would also mark a major milestone for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
“This is really the next major step in commercializing lower earth orbit,” Kirk Shireman, NASA’s International Space Station Program Manager, said.
The goal of the Commercial Crew Program is to build a commercial economy in space and make NASA a customer by services to head to the ISS from American soil. A successful Demo-2 would get NASA one step closer to being able to buy services from SpaceX, launch from American soil and also trade that ability with other nations. Historically, American astronauts have hitched a ride with the Russians in their Soyuz capsule since the Shuttle Program retired.
Hurley and Behnken would be the first American astronauts to fly on a commercially-built American capsule and American rocket to the ISS. They are two of 9 Commercial Crew Program astronauts.
This test flight would demonstrate how well this new spacecraft system would perform with crew actually on board.
“This time we’re going to check out the life support systems, the spacesuits, the display systems,” Steve Stich, NASA Commercial Crew Program Deputy Manager, said.
More About the Mission
After acing some critical tests, including Demo-1 where NASA and SpaceX tested the operation without a crew on board as well as the In-Flight Abort Test in January, the teams were looking ahead to doing more testing with Demo-2. Some of the checkpoints that will be assessed starting from liftoff include: liftoff, orbit activation, phasing burns, proximity operation and then docking and pressurization. Hurley and Behken will have a 2-day rendezvous to the International Space Station. During the mission, Hurley will have time to take over with manual control."To see and to verify that it handles the way we expect it to and the way the simulator expects it to fly," Hurley said. “I think it’s a prudent part of our test flight in case a future crew should have to use it.”In essence, the Demo-2 mission is responsible for activities such as rendezvous, docking and undocking, as well as Demo-2 activities while the spacecraft is docked to the space station. This will set the stage for future missions. SpaceX representatives said they are already preparing for their first non-test mission. They are also currently working on the spacecraft. SpaceX has called that capsule the Crew 1. Dragon.
SpaceX Flight Suits & Touch Screen Displays
“It’s probably a dream for any test pilot to fly on a brand new vehicle, and I get to have that,” Behnken said.
The two astronauts will be sporting SpaceX’s 21st-century flight suits, which control air pressure, oxygen and have an internal communication system so the astronauts can communicate with their helmets on. The purpose of the suit is to protect astronauts while they are inside the spacecraft during sensitive portions of the mission including launch and docking.
“The suit really is an integrated part of Dragon -- it plugs into the seat,” Reed said.
SpaceX representatives said the suits are also designed to “look good” and be “inspiring.”
The touch screen displays will replace old and outdated control buttons, which had historically been used in missions like Apollo and Gemini. There are a few switches for convenience or in case things may malfunction, according to SpaceX.
More about the Astronauts
According to NASA, Behnken will be the joint operations commander for the Demo-2 mission, responsible for activities such as rendezvous, docking and undocking, as well as Demo-2 activities while the spacecraft is docked to the space station. Selected as a NASA astronaut in 2000, Behnken completed two space shuttle flights.
He flew on STS-123 in March 2008 and STS-130 in February 2010 and conducted three spacewalks during each mission. Born in St. Anne, Missouri, he has bachelor’s degrees in physics and mechanical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis and earned a master’s and a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the California Institute of Technology. Before joining NASA, Behnken was a flight test engineer with the U.S. Air Force.
Hurley will be the spacecraft commander for Demo-2, responsible for activities such as launch, landing and recovery. Selected as an astronaut in 2000, Hurley has completed two spaceflights. He served as a pilot and lead robotics operator for both STS‐127 in July 2009 and STS‐135, the final space shuttle mission, in July 2011.
The New York native was born in Endicott, but considers Apalachin his hometown. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering from Tulane University in Louisiana and graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland. Before joining NASA, he was a fighter pilot and test pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps, according to NASA.
How the Coronavirus is affecting Demo-2
Bridenstine asked that people not attend the launch in Florida, but instead watch online.
“We’re asking people not to travel. I will tell you that makes me sad to even say it. Boy, I wish we could make this into something spectacular, but having large crowds at the Kennedy Space Center--now is not the time for that,” Bridenstine. In addition, NASA and SpaceX have taken precaution to keep their teams as well as the astronauts safe.
“We’re taking temperatures, we’re wearing masks in public areas, we are social distancing as well. We’ve got at least half of our engineering staff working from home. We have protective gear,” Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said.
"We won't have the luxury of having our family and friends being there at Kennedy but obviously it's the right thing to do," Hurley said.
How you can watch
The launch is scheduled for May 27, 2020 at 3:32 p.m. (CT). You can watch it live at nasa.gov/nasalive