For the first time in nearly a decade, American astronauts will launch into space Wednesday from American soil.
That's a important milestone for sure, but potentially more significant: the U.S. space program put this manned launch in the hands of a private company — SpaceX, which developed the vehicle that will carry NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station.
Hurley was among the last four astronauts to launch from U.S. soil on July 8, 2011, marking the end of the end of NASA's Space Shuttle program.
Since then, NASA has relied on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to bring astronauts to the space station — an arrangement that's cost NASA more than $80 million per seat on average.
The Crew Dragon capsule will launch atop a SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. The liftoff is scheduled for 4.33 p.m. ET. You will be able to watch the launch live on NASA TV, and on SpaceX’s website.
Instead of numerous buttons, leverages and light indicators, the Crew Dragon module features touch screens, compatible with space-suit gloves. SpaceX also designed and built its own custom-fit suits — much sleeker than the bulky Space Shuttle launch suits.
The two astronauts will ride suited up to the launchpad in a white Tesla Model X, adorned with various NASA logos.
Step 1: Liftoff
Aluminum-lithium alloy tanks fuel nine Merlin engines with liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene propellant, generating more than 1.7 million pounds of thrust during liftoff:
The main engines are cutoff as Falcon 9 nears the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. The total burn time from launch is 233 seconds:
Step 2: The first stage separation
Once beyond Earth’s atmosphere, the pneumatic stage separation system releases the first stage from the second stage. A single Merlin engine fires, propelling the second stage into orbit:
Step 3: First stage is rotated to prepare for return
The first stage undergoes a flip maneuver using onboard cold gas thrusters. When complete, it is positioned with engines forward:
On the first stage, Merlin engines ignite, setting it on a trajectory for the landing site. Just a few seconds after the first stage separation, the rocket’s second stage will fire its engines for about six minutes, carrying the Dragon module to orbit:
The first stage grid fins deploy and engines do a temporary burn to slow it down. The grid fins will steer stage one as it enters Earth’s atmosphere:
Step 4: First stage lands
Landing legs deploy and engines light a final time to land the first stage safely on a designated landing platform:
Step 5: Module separates from second stage
Step 6: Module docks in at the International Space Station
The spacecraft will perform a series of phasing maneuvers to gradually approach and autonomously dock with the International Space Station. It will take about 19 hours to reach the International Space Station:
Roughly eight minutes after the launch, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket will come back for a landing on SpaceX’s drone ship Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic Ocean.
Neither the Soyuz rockets nor the Soyuz vehicles are reusable. Reusing the rocket and the capsule allow SpaceX to significantly lower the cost of each launch.
If Behnken and Hurley's 19-hour flight successfully reaches the International Space Station in Demo-2 mission, Crew-1, the first crewed operational flight of the Crew Dragon is expected to occur later this year.
That flight will carry NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, and Shannon Walker as well as Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi further paving the road for commercial companies for the routine delivery of astronauts to space.