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17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch

SpaceX and NASA's upcoming Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission is part of a wider effort to send humans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
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We are less than a week away from SpaceX and NASA's Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission which will send astronauts into space from American soil for the first time in almost a decade.

It has taken years of preparation to get to this moment. Many believe it signals a shift in gears for space exploration that will be felt for years to come. With the date fast approaching, we take a look at a few standout pieces of information about the upcoming mission.

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1. SpaceX's Crew Dragon Capsule is undergoing final preparations for a historic mission

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
Source: SpaceX/Twitter

Not only will NASA and SpaceX's Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission be the first launch from American soil in just under a decade, but it will also be the first launch of astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by a private company.

SpaceX tweeted images, earlier this week, of the Crew Dragon capsule attached to the Falcon 9 rocket inside a Kennedy Space Center hangar. On Friday, NASA cleared the mission for takeoff a day after SpaceX shared a video of launch preparations.

2. The mission will be crewed by veteran astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
Source: NASA

NASA assigned astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley for the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission in 2018. Aside from extensive training for Demo-2, both have experience flying on different shuttle missions. Hurley was, in fact, on the final flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2011 — the last human spaceflight from American soil.

3. The mission will launch on May 27, 2020, from the iconic Kennedy Space Center launch complex 39A

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
A Falcon 9 rocket launching an unmanned Crew Dragon capsule to the ISS in 2019, Source: NASA

Weather permitting — even ocean conditions will have to be good for the unlikely event of an emergency capsule abort — the launch is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, May 27, at 1:33 p.m. PT/4:33 p.m ET.

The mission will take off from the historic launch complex 39A where the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions were launched. The prelaunch, launch, and ISS docking will all be live-streamed on NASA's YouTube channel, NASA TV.

4. Since NASA's Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA has relied on the Russian Space Program

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
The Space Shuttle Atlantis, Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Since the final takeoff of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2011, NASA has been relying on the Russian Space Program to launch its astronauts to the ISS.

In 2019, NASA paid more than $80 million per seat to take astronauts up to the ISS in a Russian Soyuz Spacecraft. Part of the Demo-2 mission's goal is to end NASA's reliance on a foreign space program.

5. A Falcon 9 rocket will blast the manned Crew Dragon capsule into space

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
An artist's rendering of the SuperDraco engines in action, Source: NASA/SpaceX

Once the Falcon 9's first stage detaches it will descend back to Earth and land on the drone ship "Of Course I Still Love You." The second stage will then fire its engines for about six minutes before detaching and leaving Crew Dragon to its ISS approach.

In the event of a failure during launch, Crew Dragon's SuperDraco engines can safely land the craft back on Earth. Fired at full throttle, they can power Dragon 0.5 miles away from Falcon 9 in 7.5 seconds, accelerating at more than 400 mph.

6. NASA has revived its iconic 'worm' logo to commemorate the return of human spaceflight to American soil

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
Source: NASA

NASA's 'worm' logo was originally introduced as a cleaner, sleeker alternative to the original NASA logo that is still used today. The brand, which was retired in 1992, has been reintroduced to commemorate this historic mission.

7. This is the final flight test for Crew Dragon

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
Source: SpaceX

The Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission is the culmination of years of testing. Last year, Crew Dragon was successfully sent to the ISS without a crew, while this year's critical in-flight abort test led to the greenlighting of the Demo-2 mission.

If the Demo-2 mission is a success, NASA will certify the SpaceX Crew Dragon operational for future launches.  

8. It will take Crew Dragon 24 hours to reach the ISS

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
Source: NASA

Crew Dragon's arrival for docking at the ISS is expected to take place at 8:29 A.M. PT on Thursday, May 28.

Once there, Behnken and Hurley "will perform tests on Crew Dragon in addition to conducting research and other tasks with the space station crew", NASA stated. They will then come back to Earth on Crew Dragon at an as-yet-unspecified date.

9. The Crew Dragon capsule can be configured to carry up to seven passengers

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
Source: SpaceX

Though the Demo-2 mission will only carry two astronauts, the Crew Dragon spacecraft is capable of carrying up to seven passengers. The pressurized section of the capsule is designed to carry people as well as environmentally sensitive cargo.

10. NASA's human spaceflight chief, Doug Loverro, resigned only nine days before the mission

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
Doug Loverro (left) at an event focused on NASA's Artemis program, Source: NASA/Josh Valcarcel

NASA human spaceflight chief Doug Loverro's resignation only nine days before the mission's liftoff inevitably ser the rumor mill in motion. Could he have foreseen problems with the upcoming launch?  

All we know for certain is that Loverro sent an email out to NASA employees on May 19 announcing his resignation at the same time as citing an unspecified risk he took earlier in the year. In his email, he said "it is clear that I made a mistake in that choice for which I alone must bear the consequences."

Loverro will be replaced by Ken Bowersox, his deputy who will serve as acting associate administrator.

11. Only a limited number of the press will be able to attend the launch due to the COVID-19 pandemic

NASA announced at the beginning of May that "only a limited number of media will be accommodated at Kennedy due to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Astronauts Behnken and Hurley, meanwhile, entered preflight quarantine on May 13. Though prelaunch quarantines were standard procedure before the pandemic, NASA has said it is adding extra safety precautions to make sure the virus is not transported to the ISS.

"Hurley and Behnken, as well as those in direct, close contact with the crew will be tested twice for the virus as a precaution," NASA said in a statement.   

12. The original launch was scheduled for 2019

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
Source: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The Demo-2 mission was originally set to take place in 2019. However, several setbacks, including the Crew Dragon capsule exploding during a test, meant the launch date was pushed back to this year.

13. Demo-2 is part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
Source: NASA

Demo-2 is part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which includes SpaceX and Boeing. The two commercial spaceflight companies build and launch crew capsules designed to transport astronauts to and from the ISS.

14. The Crew Dragon SpaceX spacesuits are a sight to behold

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
Source: NASA

With all the talk of the Falcon 9 and Dragon Crew capsule's immense power, it can be easy to forget that the spacesuits Hurley and Behnken will be wearing are impressive pieces of equipment too.

Though SpaceX has not released specifications on the suits, they were designed to be more form-fitting and maneuverable than the Space Shuttle’s orange suits.

15. The Demo-2 mission's version of the 'Astrovan' will be a Tesla Model X

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
Source: Jim Bridenstine/Twitter

The Astronaut transfer van, also known as the 'Astrovan', was a famous vehicle during the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions that would transfer astronauts to the launch pad after they had suited up.

Unsurprisingly, as SpaceX is an Elon Musk company, the 'Astrovan' has been replaced with a Tesla Model X bearing the NASA insignia.

16. NASA has already assigned crew for future missions

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
NASA Astronauts Victor Glover (left) and Mike Hopkins (right), Source: SpaceX

As a huge vote of confidence, NASA has already assigned astronauts to the first operational Crew Dragon mission, despite the fact that that mission relies on the outcome of the Demo-2 mission. 

The first operational Crew Dragon mission will be crewed by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, and NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Michael Hopkins, and Victor Glover. If all goes to plan, it could launch before the end of the year.

17. Success will pave the way for humans going to Mars and beyond

17 Things You Need to Know About SpaceX's First-Ever Astronaut Launch
Source: SpaceX

The Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission is part of a concerted long-term effort by SpaceX and NASA to take humans into deep space.

"By encouraging industry to provide human transportation services to and from low-Earth orbit, NASA can expand its focus on building spacecraft and rockets for deep space missions," NASA said in a statement

In a blog post, SpaceX called the upcoming Demo-2 mission "a turning point for America’s future in space exploration that lays the groundwork for future missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond."

 

Editor's Note 24/05/20: An earlier version of this article mistakenly implied that the Crew Dragon's SuperDraco thrusters are the Falcon 9's second stage engines. IE regrets this mistake. 

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