At the beginning everyone was skeptical. But Elon Musk’s SpaceX defied expectations – and hopes to be able to make history on Wednesday by launching two NASA astronauts into space, the first crew-based flight in nine long years.
US President Donald Trump will be among the spectators at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to witness the launch, which has received the green light despite months of shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Alluding to virus restrictions, the public was told to watch a live stream of Crew Dragon being launched by a Falcon 9 missile at the International Space Station.
Under Barack Obama, NASA’s commercial crew program began, which aimed to develop private spacecraft for the transportation of American astronauts into space.
However, his successor sees it as a symbol of his strategy to restore American supremacy over space, both militarily ̵
He ordered NASA to return to the moon in 2024, an unlikely schedule, but it has given the legendary space agency a boost.
In the 22 years since the launch of the first components of the ISS, only spacecraft developed by NASA and the Russian Space Agency have carried crews there.
NASA used the famous shuttle program – huge, extremely complex, winged ships that carried dozens of astronauts into space for three decades.
But its astonishing 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 that, NASA astronauts learned Russian and traveled with the Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan to the ISS, in a partnership that survived the political tensions between Washington and Moscow.
But it should always be a temporary agreement. NASA had commissioned two private companies – the aviation giant Boeing and the upstart SpaceX – to develop and build capsules to 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 go.
On Wednesday at 4:33 p.m. (2033 GMT), a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon capsule at the top will launch from Launch Pad 39A.
Since 2011, NASA has awarded SpaceX contracts worth more than $ 3 billion to build the spacecraft.
The capsule is occupied by Robert Behnken (49) and Douglas Hurley (53), both experienced space travelers – Hurley piloted Atlantis on his last trip.
Nineteen hours later they land on the ISS, where two Russians and one 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 start window is Saturday, May 30th. The launch took five years longer than planned, but despite the delays, SpaceX beat Boeing.
Boeing’s test flight of his Starliner failed due to serious software problems and has to be repeated.
“It was a real success story,” Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA’s Ames Center in Silicon Valley, now teaching at Stanford, told AFP.
“There was great skepticism,” recalls Hubbard, who met Musk before SpaceX was founded and is also the chair of a SpaceX security advisory board.
“Older employees of the old companies, Lockheed, Boeing, told me at a conference that these SpaceX people don’t know what they don’t know,” he told AFP.
SpaceX finally prevailed with its cheaper Falcon 9 rocket, the first stage of which lands vertically on a barge in the Atlantic.
SpaceX has been delivering the ISS for NASA again since 2012 thanks to the cargo version of the Dragon capsule.
The manned mission called Demo-2 is vital to 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 that is open to tourists and businesses.
“We are imagining a day in the future when we have a dozen orbiting space stations. All are operated by the commercial industry,” said NASA chief Jim Bridenstine.
Musk aims higher: he builds a giant rocket, the spaceship, to orbit the moon – or even to travel to Mars and ultimately make humanity a “multi-planet species”.
© Agence France-Presse