In the beginning, everyone was skeptical. But Elon Musk’ s SpaceX defied expectations – and on Wednesday hopes to make history by ferrying two NASA astronauts into space , the first crewed flight from US soil in nine long years.
US President Donald Trump will be among the spectators at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to witness the launch , which has been given the green light despite months of shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The general public , in a nod to virus restrictions, has been told to watch via a livestream as Crew Dragon is launched by a Falcon 9 rocket toward the International Space Station .
NASA’ s Commercial Crew program , aimed at developing private spacecraft to transport American astronauts in to space , began under Barack Obama .
But his successor sees it as a symbol of his strategy to reassert American domination of space , both military — with his creation of the Space Force – and civilian .
He has ordered NASA to return to the moon in 2024 , an unlikely timetable but one that has given the storied space agency a boost .
In the 22 years since the first components of the ISS were launched , only spacecraft developed by NASA and by the Russian space agency have carried crews there.
NASA used the illustrious shuttle program — huge , extremely complex , winged ships that carried dozens of astronauts into space for three decades.
But their staggering cost – $ 200 billion for 135 flights – and two fatal accidents finally put an end to the program .
The last shuttle , Atlantis , landed on July 21 , 2011.
After, NASA astronauts learned Russian and travelled to the ISS in the Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan , in a partnership which survived political tensions between Washington and Moscow .
But it was only ever meant to be a temporary arrangement. NASA had entrusted two private companies — aviation giant Boeing and upstart SpaceX — with the task of designing and building capsules that would replace the shuttles .
Nine years later , SpaceX – founded by Musk, the outspoken South African entrepreneur who also built PayPal and Tesla , in 2002 — is ready to launch .
– ‘ Success story’ –
At 4 :33 pm (2033 GMT ) on Wednesday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is set to take off from Launch Pad 39A with the Crew Dragon capsule at its top .
NASA has awarded SpaceX more than $ 3 billion in contracts since 2011 to build the spacecraft .
The capsule will be crewed by Robert Behnken , 49, and Douglas Hurley , 53 , both veteran space travelers — Hurley piloted Atlantis on its last trip.
Nineteen hours later they will dock at the ISS, where two Russians and an American are waiting for them .
The weather forecast remains unfavorable , with a 60 percent chance of bad conditions , according to Cape Canaveral forecasters .
The next launch window is Saturday , May 30 .
The launch has taken five years longer than planned to come about , but even with the delays SpaceX has beaten Boeing to the punch.
Boeing ’ s test flight of its Starliner failed due to serious software issues , and will have to be redone .
“ It’ s been a real success story, ” Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA ’ s Ames Center in Silicon Valley who now teaches at Stanford.
“ There was huge skepticism , ” Hubbard , who met Musk before the creation of SpaceX and also chairs a SpaceX safety advisory panel , recalled .
“ Senior people at the legacy companies , Lockheed , Boeing , would tell me at a conference that these SpaceX guys don’ t know what they don’ t know .
SpaceX finally came out on top with its cheaper Falcon 9 rocket , the first stage of which comes back to land vertically on a barge in the Atlantic .
Since 2012 , SpaceX has been resupplying the ISS for NASA , thanks to the cargo version of the Dragon capsule.
The manned mission , called Demo – 2 , is crucial for Washington in two ways .
The first is to break NASA’ s dependence on the Russians .
But the second is to catalyze a private “ low Earth orbit ” market open to tourists and businesses .
“ We envision a day in the future where we have a dozen space stations in low Earth orbit . All operated by commercial industry , ” said NASA boss Jim Bridenstine .
Musk is aiming higher : he is building a huge rocket , Starship , to circumnavigate the Moon — or even to travel to Mars and ultimately make humanity a “ multi – planet species ” .
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