The launch of a rocket from the groundbreaking public-private partnership that was a decade in the making will launch on Wednesday in Florida.
Not since the retirement of Nasa’s space shuttle fleet in 2011 has the US possessed the capability to send its own astronauts into orbit, and the success of this week’s mission, formally known as SpaceX Demo-2, is likely to shape the direction of the space agency’s near-Earth ambitions for a generation.
At 4.33pm, a Dragon crew capsule attached to a Falcon 9 rocket is set to take flight from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, bound for the international space station (ISS). It will carry two Americans as test pilots, both veterans of previous space shuttle missions. They will remain there for up to three months while mission managers evaluate the spaceship’s performance, according to The Guardian.
The hardware was built by SpaceX, the private California-based company founded by the controversial billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, and funded by the US government under Nasa’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).
While every previous US space program was a government venture, Nasa signaled a switch of direction in 2010 with the initiative to subcontract low Earth orbit operations to private industry while concentrating its own efforts on longer-term goals, such as returning to the moon by 2024.
The astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will ride to the launchpad in an electric car manufactured by Tesla, another of Musk’s pioneering companies, foregoing the “tin-can” Astrovan that has been the traditional crew transport since the US began sending humans into space in 1961.
“We are on the cusp of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil yet again,” said Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, who referred to Wednesday’s planned launch as “the big show”.
“This time we’re doing it differently than we’ve ever done it before. Nasa is not going to purchase, own and operate the hardware the way we used to. We are partnering with the commercial industry with the intent that they would go get customers that are not Nasa, drive down our costs and increase access to space.”
According to the Planetary Society, NASA has invested $6.2bn in CCP since 2010, making it the lowest-cost human spaceflight development effort in almost 60 years. The money has been mostly split two ways, to SpaceX and its rival Boeing, whose uncrewed test flight of the Starliner human-rated capsule ended in partial failure in December, pushing back its next launch attempts to 2021.
“Spaceflight is not easy. They’ve had hiccups along the way and they’ve overcome them,” said Dr Henry Hertzfeld, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
“They’ve done quite well. They’ve been in existence 20 years, so not quite your startup at this point. They have a younger, more energetic workforce along with hiring some very good, experienced people, most having cut their teeth on government programs, be it Nasa or defense programs.
Donald Trump, who has made American spaceflight a policy priority through the foundation of the Space Force as the sixth branch of the US military, and an ambitious order to NASA to make the first crewed moon landing since 1972 within the next four years, will attend Wednesday’s launch.