NASA astronauts return to the future with the launch of the capsule

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – It’s back in the future as NASA astronauts leave the United States – aboard a retro-style “Right Stuff” capsule.

Make no mistake: this is not your father’s – or your grandfather’s – capsule.

SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule surpasses virtually all of NASA’s former Apollo spacecraft. The Dragon’s clean lines and minimalist interior, with touch screens instead of a mess of switches and buttons, even make the space shuttles of yesteryear appear.

This new version of a vintage look will be fully visible on Wednesday when SpaceX plans to launch NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken at the International Space Station – a first for a private company.

It will be the first astronaut launch from Florida since Atlantis closed the space shuttle program in 2011, and the first American-made capsule to transport people into orbit since the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket – with the crew capsule at the top – will launch from the same pad used for these two previous missions.

The capsules of Soyuz, the workhorse of Russia, still in use after half a century and more, allowed NASA astronauts to fly to the space station. Although reliable, the Soyuz seems dated compared to the catchy dragon.

“We want it to be not only as safe and reliable as what you would expect from the world’s most advanced spacecraft … we also want it to be beautiful and magnificent,” said Benji Reed, SpaceX mission director .

SpaceX and Boeing, NASA’s other commercial crew supplier, opted for the capsules from the start.

Another early competitor, Sierra Nevada Corp., offered a small space plane for the astronauts, but did not make the final cut. NASA has since hired the company to transport space station supplies aboard its mini-shuttle starting next year.

There was no need for another flying machine like the shuttle, which was built to carry large satellites and parts of space stations, said Steve Payne, retired director of NASA.

“What we’re trying to do now is just a top-down taxi service, and you no longer need the huge semi. You can use a sedan, “Payne told the Associated Press.

“Yes, the wings are beautiful. They give you more options as to where to land and a little more control, “said Payne, a former Navy fighter pilot. “But they are not absolutely necessary. And since we are trying to make this solution inexpensive and reusable and as simple as possible so that it is profitable, the capsules work. “

SpaceX based its crew capsule on its long-standing reusable cargo capsule, also known as the Dragon, ending the space station’s missions with old fashioned splash.

The two astronauts have been deeply involved in the development of the new capsule over the past five years. In a true test flight, they made suggestions and tweaked here and there, for the benefit not only of themselves but also of future crews.

“Our goal through this whole process is not to turn the spaceship into the great Bob and Doug machine, with a lot of things that only Doug likes or that Bob likes,” said Behnken.

Although the fully automated Dragon has four seats aligned, only the two centrals will be occupied for this particularly risky test flight. A solo test model during last year’s Dragon capsule debut.

This dragon now has a name, courtesy of its crew. Hurley and Behnken promise to reveal it on launch day, one of the many traditions they embrace as NASA’s commercial crew program finally takes off.

This practice dates back to NASA’s early days: John Glenn of Project Mercury became the first American to circle the world aboard Friendship 7; Gus Grissom and John Young of Gemini 3 sailed in orbit aboard Molly Brown; and Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins of Apollo 11 flew to the moon aboard Columbia.

“We have to keep some suspense for the mission itself,” said Behnken. “We have something to expect on launch day. “

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The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science is supported by the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press

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