Sat, Mar 02, 2019 - Page 7 News List

SpaceX to launch test for crewed US flights

AFP, WASHINGTON

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft are on Jan. 3 rolled out to Launch Complex 39A for a dry run to prepare for today’s Demo-1 flight test at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Photo: SpaceX via AP

SpaceX is to try to send a dummy to the International Space Station this weekend in a key test for resuming crewed US space flights, perhaps this year if all goes well.

Since the shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth on July 21, 2011, no American astronaut has blasted off from US soil for a tour in space.

NASA pays Russia to take its people up to the orbiting research facility at a cost of US$82 million a head, round trip.

In 2014, the US space agency awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing for them to take over this task, but the program has suffered delays as safety requirements are much more stringent for crewed flights than for uncrewed missions to deploy satellites.

No one in America wants to relive the tragedies of the US space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, which disintegrated in mid-air in 1986 and 2003.

Three years behind schedule, a Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to blast off today from Cape Canaveral at 7:49am GMT with a Crew Dragon capsule in its nose. It will aim to rendezvous tomorrow with the International Space Station. The capsule is scheduled to return to Earth on Friday.

If all goes well, two astronauts are to be aboard the next time such a seven-seat capsule is launched. That is supposed to happen in July, but delays are possible.

“These things always take longer than you think,” said Lori Garver, who was the number two official at NASA when the contracts were awarded to SpaceX and Boeing under then-US president Barack Obama.

Back then this decision was controversial, with lawmakers complaining about changing the way the US sends people into space and the loss of contracts and jobs for big, veteran aerospace companies based in their states.

“We have very few heroes left, and astronauts are our heroes, and loosening our grip at NASA and allowing companies to take the lead on transporting them was a challenge for some. It still is,” Garver said.

SpaceX is no rookie when it comes to trips to and from the space station. The company founded by Elon Musk and based in Los Angeles has carried out 15 resupply missions to the orbiter since 2012. One of its rockets bound for the International Space Station exploded in 2015.

The second, crewed version of the Dragon rocket has been adapted from the cargo model, which has proved to be reliable.

Today’s mission is still a “big deal,” SpaceX vice president Hans Koenigsmann said.

“This is an absolutely critical first step that we do as we move towards returning the crewed launch capability back here to the US,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator with NASA Human Exploration and Operations.

It has taken years to be within reach of that goal.

“I don’t think very many people thought that the length of time between the termination of shuttle and a new vehicle was going to be as long as it has been,” former NASA chief historian Roger Launius said.

The cooling of US relations with Russia has increased pressure for the US to be able to send people to space on its own.

NASA has always relied on the aerospace industry for its manned space programs.

Launius said that in the days of the Apollo moon missions “almost everybody in that room were contractors, not NASA employees.”

What is new now is that NASA no longer covers all development costs and does not own the spacecraft that are to be used to send people into space.

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