What you need to know about NASA and SpaceX’s historic crewed ISS mission

26 May 2020

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Image: SpaceX

SpaceX is to boldly go where no private company has gone before as it gets set to launch its first NASA crewed mission into Earth’s orbit.

It has been almost a decade since NASA last launched astronauts into space from US soil, but now using a SpaceX rocket, it will send a two-person crew to the International Space Station (ISS). Set for launch at 9.33pm Irish time tomorrow (27 May), the mission will be an historic one as it will be the first time that a private company will send a human payload to Earth’s orbit.

Experienced NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be the two taking part in the mission, dubbed Demo-2, aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon placed on top of a Falcon 9 rocket. While it will be an important step for NASA to start sending astronauts from US soil again – after spending the past nine years paying Russia to do it – the mission is an essential demonstrator for Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Stepping stone into deep space

If all goes well, NASA will certify SpaceX’s Crew Dragon pod for the space agency’s Commercial Crew Programme to launch astronauts further into space. Once in orbit, the crew and SpaceX mission control will verify the spacecraft is performing as intended by testing things such as the environmental control system, the displays and the manoeuvring thrusters.

Both Behnken and Hurley will be donning SpaceX’s futuristic-looking spacesuits, first revealed back in 2017. Three hours prior to take-off, they will hop into a custom Tesla Model X transit vehicle to make their way to the Crew Dragon capsule.

Once docked with the ISS – joining the Expedition 63 crew aboard the space station – the crew will perform tests on Crew Dragon to see how it performs in orbit. The docking will be performed autonomously by the spacecraft, but the astronauts will be watching closely to see if there are any issues.

Potential stumbling block

The Crew Dragon pod for this test run is designed to last in orbit for 110 days, but Behnken and Hurley will return to Earth when another commercial crew is able to travel to the ISS. Once fully operational, the Crew Dragon spacecraft would be able to last 210 days in orbit.

Ahead of this much-anticipated launch, SpaceX tested an uncrewed version of Crew Dragon on 19 January. Following a successful take-off, the mission was aborted as planned 90 seconds after launch, returning the craft to Earth with a splash in the Atlantic Ocean.

All that’s standing in this latest mission’s way is the weather, with the US Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicting there is a 60pc chance of “unfavourable weather conditions” including thick clouds for the Demo-2 mission on launch day.

“It certainly has been trending better over the last day or two for launch weather,” said Mike McAleenan of the weather squadron. “If I was to issue the forecast today (25 May), right now, we would probably be down to 40pc chance of violation.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic