While the world celebrates Earth Day today, NASA is busy preparing to make history by launching two men away from it next month. NASA has announced that on May 27, for the first time since Space Shuttle Atlantis left the launchpad on July 8, 2011, an American rocket will leave American soil, carrying American Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station. The astronauts will be using the SpaceX Crew Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket, which is scheduled to launch from NASA Kennedy’s Launchpad 39A.
Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39 has historical significance in the American space program. Originally built for the Apollo Space Program in the 1960s, the pad was first used in 1967 with the first Saturn V rocket launch which carried the uncrewed Apollo 4 Spacecraft. In addition to Skylab launches, the launchpad was also the site where Space Shuttle Enterprise conducted facility checks in 1979 ahead of the Space Shuttle program. In 1981, Space Shuttle Columbia, in mission STS-1, lifted up from this launch pad, propelling humans into space. The last Space Shuttle launched from Launchpad 39A on July 8, 2011, lifting Atlantis into space. On December 13, 2013, NASA announced that it selected SpaceX as the new commercial tenant to the pad that sat unused for the two years prior.
Since signing a 20 year lease to Launchpad 39A in 2014, SpaceX has modified the pad and used it to conduct their own rocket launches more than a dozen times. Both the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy rocket have launched from the pad since. On March 2, 2019, SpaceX launched it’s human-rated spacecraft Crew Dragon ; after that uncrewed demonstration mission proved to be successful, NASA and SpaceX have worked on the upcoming Demonstration Mission 2 (Demo-2), which will fly Behnken and Hurley from the pad to the International Space Station in May.
At 4:32pm ET on May 27, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Crew Dragon atop it will launch to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA astronauts Behnken and Hurley will stay at the ISS for a yet-to-be-determined length of time. As the final test flight for SpaceX, the purpose of this mission is to validate the company’s crew transportation system; it’ll also be the first time NASA astronauts will test the spacecraft systems in orbit.
Behnken will be the joint operations commander for the 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. Behnken is no stranger to space; he was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2000 and has completed two space shuttle flights. Behnken flew STS-123 in March 2008 and STS-130 in February 2010; he also performed three spacewalks during each mission. Born in St. Anne, Missouri, he has Bachelor’s degrees in physics and mechanical engineering from Washington University and earned a master’s and doctorate in mechanical engineering from 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. He was selected as an astronaut in 2000 and has completed two spaceflights. Hurley served as 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 Maryland. Before joining NASA, he was a fighter pilot and test pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps.
After the study is complete in space, the Crew Dragon will depart the ISS and eventually splash-down in the Atlantic Ocean. Splashing down just off the Florida coastline, SpaceX’s Go Navigator recovery vessel will retrieve the Behnken and Hurley and return them to Cape Canaveral. NASA will use insights from this mission to determine whether or not the Crew Dragon will be certified for regular ongoing operation for human flight missions.
While the launch will be celebrated by many, there won’t be much fanfare around the launchpad itself due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While the Florida space facility is busy preparing for the Crew Dragon and other missions, the visitor’s center is closed indefinitely. In addition to keeping visitors out, NASA is also currently evaluating the number of media who will be permitted to cover the launch. In an email sent to Weatherboy, NASA said, “It is expected that a limited number of media credentials will be issued for on-site prelaunch and launch events for the safety of your fellow journalists and employees at Kennedy Space Center.”