At first, everyone was skeptical. But Elon Musk’s SpaceX has defied expectations – and hopes to make history on Wednesday by transporting two NASA astronauts into space, the first crew flight on American soil in nine long years.
US President Donald Trump will be among the spectators at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to attend the launch, which received the green light despite months of closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The general public, in a nod to virus restrictions, was invited to watch via a live stream that Crew Dragon is launched by a Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station.
NASA’s Commercial Crew program, aimed at developing private spacecraft to transport American astronauts into space, began under Barack Obama.
But his successor saw it as a symbol of his strategy to reaffirm American domination of space, both military – with his creation of the Space Force – and civilian.
He ordered NASA to return to the Moon in 2024, an unlikely schedule but which gave the legendary space agency a boost.
In the 22 years since the launch of the first components of the ISS, only spacecraft developed by NASA and the Russian space agency have carried crews there.
NASA used the illustrious shuttle program – huge, extremely complex winged vessels that have transported dozens of astronauts into space for three decades.
But their enormous cost – $ 200 billion for 135 flights – and two fatal accidents ultimately ended the program.
The last shuttle, Atlantis, landed on July 21, 2011.
Afterwards, NASA astronauts learned Russian and went to the ISS in the Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan, in a partnership that survived political tensions between Washington and Moscow.
But this was only to be a temporary arrangement. NASA contracted two private companies – the aviation giant Boeing and the new SpaceX – to design and manufacture capsules that would replace the shuttles.
Nine years later, SpaceX – founded by Musk, the South African franc entrepreneur who also built PayPal and Tesla in 2002 – is ready to launch.
– ‘Success’ –
At 4:33 p.m. (8:33 p.m. GMT) Wednesday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket should take off from Launch Pad 39A with the Crew Dragon capsule at its top.
NASA has awarded SpaceX more than $ 3 billion in contracts since 2011 to build the spacecraft.
The capsule will be led by Robert Behnken, 49, and Douglas Hurley, 53, both veteran space travelers – Hurley piloted Atlantis on his last trip.
Nineteen hours later, they will dock at the ISS, where two Russians and an American are waiting for them.
The weather forecast remains unfavorable, with 60% risk of bad conditions, according to forecasters from Cape Canaveral.
The next launch window is Saturday, May 30.
The launch took five years longer than expected, but even with the delays, SpaceX defeated Boeing.
Boeing’s test flight of its Starliner failed due to serious software problems and will need to be redone.
“This is a real success,” Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA’s Ames Center in Silicon Valley, who now teaches at Stanford, told AFP.
“There was a lot of skepticism,” said Hubbard, who met Musk before the creation of SpaceX and who also chairs a SpaceX security advisory committee.
“Senior officials from the former companies, Lockheed, Boeing, would tell me at a conference that these SpaceX guys don’t know what they don’t know,” he told AFP.
SpaceX finally came out on top with its cheaper Falcon 9 rocket, the first step of which is to land vertically on a barge in the Atlantic.
Since 2012, SpaceX has been replenishing the ISS for NASA, using the cargo version of the Dragon capsule.
The manned mission, called Demo-2, is crucial to Washington in two ways.
The first is to break NASA’s dependence on the Russians.
But the second is to catalyze a private “low-orbit” market open to tourists and businesses.
“We envision a day in the future when we will have a dozen space stations in low Earth orbit. All exploited by the commercial industry, “said NASA boss Jim Bridenstine.
Musk aims higher: he builds a huge rocket, Starship, to go around the Moon – or even to go to Mars and ultimately make humanity a “multi-planetary species”.
© 2020 AFP