By Anna Hart
On the morning of July 8th 2011, the last ever NASA space shuttle launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre carrying its four-astronaut crew to the International Space Station (ISS). Space shuttle Atlantis’ was NASA’s 135th shuttle launch since the start of the program 30 years ago. Its purpose was to deliver vital spare parts to the orbiting lab, marking the end of the space shuttle era and making way for a new era of deep space exploration aiming to send astronauts to Mars, asteroids and other deep space targets.
This May, two astronauts are once again set to make their way beyond Earth’s atmosphere: the first time NASA astronauts will launch from the US in almost a decade. In a departure from every mission since NASA’s conception, the astronauts will not be carried by a NASA spacecraft, but by one made and operated by SpaceX: the private space company founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.
SpaceX has completed successful cargo delivery missions to the ISS but has never flown a human into space before. As part of this public-private space company collaboration, NASA and SpaceX have been working together for years to ensure the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft can safely send astronauts into orbit.
Since it retired its space shuttles in 2011, NASA has been using Russian rockets for manned missions. This launch signals a departure from the past, as NASA makes clear in their mission brief: “A new era of human spaceflight is set to begin as American astronauts once again launch on an American rocket from American soil.”
Astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will launch at 4:32pm EDT on May 27th from Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre for an extended stay at the ISS, with the specific duration of the mission – named Demo-2 – still to be determined.
It will take about 24 hours from launch for the spacecraft to dock with the ISS, during which time the crew and SpaceX mission control will verify the rocket and spacecraft are performing as intended, validating the crew transportation system, environmental control and displays systems and maneuvering thrusters, among other things, in this final test flight for Space X.
The Demo-2 mission will be the final step before the Crew Dragon spacecraft is certified by NASA as suitable for operational, long-duration missions to the space station, during which astronauts complete important scientific research, benefitting people on Earth and laying the groundwork for future space exploration. Future Moon and Mars missions to look out for will start with NASA’s Artemis’ program, which will land the first woman and next man on the lunar surface in 2024.