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Four astronauts were ready to launch on the SpaceX Crew Dragon “Resilience” for the International Space Station on Sunday, the first of what the United States expects to be many routine missions after a successful test flight in late spring.
Three Americans – Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker – and Japanese Soichi Noguchi will take off at 7:27 pm on Sunday (00:27 GMT on Monday) from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
In May, SpaceX completed a demonstration mission showing that it could take astronauts to the ISS and bring them back safely, thus ending almost a decade of dependence on Russia for travel on its Soyuz rockets.
“The story being made this time around is that we are launching what we call an operational flight to the International Space Station,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters on Friday.
The launch will be attended by Vice President Mike Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence.
The crew will dock at their destination around 11pm Monday night (4am GMT on Tuesday), joining two Russians and an American on board the station, and will remain for six months.
The Crew Dragon earlier this week became the first spacecraft to be certified by NASA since the Space Shuttle nearly 40 years ago.
It is a capsule, similar in shape to the spaceship that preceded the Space Shuttle, and its launch vehicle is a reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
At the end of their missions, the Crew Dragon launches a parachute and then falls into the water, just like in the Apollo era.
NASA turned to SpaceX and Boeing after ending the Space Shuttle program in 2011, which failed in its primary goals of making space travel accessible and safe.
The agency will have spent more than $ 8 billion on the Commercial Crew program by 2024, with the hope that the private sector can take care of NASA’s needs in “low Earth orbit” so that it is free to focus on return-to-space missions. Moon and then Mars.
SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, has overtaken its much older rival Boeing, whose program failed after an unsuccessful test of its threadless Starliner last year.
But SpaceX’s success does not mean the United States will stop hitchhiking with Russia, Bridenstine said.
“We want a seat exchange where American astronauts can fly Russian Soyuz rockets and Russian cosmonauts in commercial crew vehicles,” he said, explaining that it was necessary in case any program was inactive for a period of time.
The reality, however, is that space ties between the United States and Russia, one of the few good points in their bilateral relations, have eroded in recent years and much remains uncertain.
Russia has said it will not partner with the Artemis program to return to the moon in 2024, claiming that the NASA-led mission is very much focused on the United States.
Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency, has also repeatedly scoffed at SpaceX technology, and this summer announced that Roscosmos would build rockets that would surpass Musk’s.
He told a state news agency that he was not impressed by the Crew Dragon’s landing in the water, calling it “quite difficult” and saying that his agency was developing a methane rocket that will be reusable 100 times.
But the fact that a national space agency feels motivated to compare itself to a company is arguably a validation of NASA’s public-private strategy.
The emergence of SpaceX also deprived Roscosmos of a valuable income stream.
The cost of round-trip travel on Russian rockets has risen to around $ 85 million per astronaut, according to estimates last year.
– Presidential transition –
Presidential transitions are always a difficult time for NASA, and Joe Biden’s rise in January should be no different.
The agency has yet to receive from the Congress the tens of billions of dollars needed to complete the Artemis program.
Bridenstine has announced that he will step down in order to allow the new president to define his own goals for space exploration.
So far, Biden has not commented on the 2024 timeline.
Democratic party documents say they support NASA’s aspirations for the Moon and Mars, but also emphasize raising the agency’s Earth Sciences division to better understand how climate change is affecting our planet.
© 2020 AFP