NASA, SpaceX Sending Astronauts to ISS Is a Big Deal

NASA and the private aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company SpaceX are gearing up to launch astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in May of this year. And even though astronauts are frequently sent from Earth to the ISS, this particular launch from this particular pairing is special. Seminal, even, as it will mark the first time that American astronauts have been launched from American soil into space in nearly a decade.

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NASA has been drumming up excitement for the May 27 mission, with the agency’s Commercial Crew Program noting that it will mark the return of human spaceflight to America. Jim Bridenstine, the Administrator of NASA, posted an inspiration video (which already has a relatively high one million-plus views) promoting the upcoming mission with the tagline, “Launch America.”

Meanwhile, SpaceX has also been doing its best to inspire an appreciation for the upcoming mission. The company’s been pumping out plenty of posts highlighting the capabilities and achievements of its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule, both of which will be used to launch American astronauts Col. Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into space. The company has also released an animation (below) that demonstrates what the most notable steps of the upcoming mission will hopefully look like.

Both Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon are also, according to the company’s CEO Elon Musk, manufactured entirely in the U.S. The Falcon 9 is the line of low Earth orbit (LEO) rockets that SpaceX has been able reuse over and over again to deliver cargo to the ISS and satellites into orbit around Earth. This reusability of LEO rockets is something that only SpaceX has been able to accomplish, and is possible thanks to its ability to land first stages (the bottom, largest portions of the rockets), as well as its use of fairings (the rockets’ coverings for their cargo) that can be caught out at sea.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is a variant of the company’s Dragon 2 reusable spacecraft, which itself is the newest iteration of Dragon 1—an iconic vehicle in its own right. In May of 2012, Dragon 1 became the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to be recovered successfully from orbit, and has since spent 520 days in total attached to the ISS.

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A look inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. NASA Kennedy

And while a lot of these technical stats and mission details may sound dry, the summation of all of these milestones and capabilities is quite remarkable. As mentioned, the U.S. hasn’t sent astronauts into space in nearly ten years, with the last manned mission occurring in 2011 via NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. Since then, America has had to rely on Russia’s Soyuz family of rockets to send its astronauts to the ISS. But should this mission prove to be successful, it will not only mean the end of an era marked by a lack of human spaceflight in the U.S., but may also potentially usher in a new one with a completely new paradigm.

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A look at SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket as it launches from Earth. SpaceX

Imagine a new space age, where astronauts—outfitted in some very spiffy spacesuits like these—are sent to the ISS aboard reusable rockets, which deliver manned crew capsules that dock autonomously with the ISS, before heading back down to Earth to land on terra firma in the U.S.—or even on floating drone ships. Then, once they’re finished with their missions aboard the ISS, having those same astronauts return to Earth safely aboard reusable crew capsules, which eventually touch down in the ocean. With all of the rockets’ and capsules’ (almost entirely reusable) components manufactured in America.

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NASA also apparently wants SpaceX to be the initial commercial provider for delivering cargo to the “Lunar Gateway,” the space station NASA plans on putting into orbit around the Moon as a part of its Mars-focused Artemis program.

For those who want to watch history happen, both SpaceX and NASA will live stream the May 27 launch, which is set to occur at 4:32PM EST. Following the SpaceX twitter account also generally seems like the most immediate, most detailed way to learn about the latest updates on the mission.

Feature Image: NASA Kennedy

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