Four astronauts were set to launch the SpaceX Crew Dragon “Resilience” to the International Space Station on Sunday, the first of what the United States hopes will 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 p.m. Sunday (0027 GMT Monday) from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
In May, SpaceX completed a demonstration mission showing that it could take astronauts to the ISS and return them safely, ending nearly a decade of dependence on Russia for its rockets. Soyuz.
“The story 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 on Monday night (4am GMT on Tuesday), joining two Russians and an American aboard the station, and will stay there 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 spacecraft that preceded the space shuttle, and its launcher is a reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
At the end of its missions, the Crew Dragon deploys parachutes and then splashes into the water, just like in the Apollo era.
NASA turned to SpaceX and Boeing after shutting down the checkered space shuttle program in 2011, which failed in its primary goals of making space travel affordable and safe.
The agency will have spent more than $ 8 billion on the Commercial Crew program by 2024, in hopes that the private sector can support NASA’s “low earth orbit” needs to be released. to focus on the return missions to the Moon and then to Mars.
SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, edged out much older rival Boeing, whose program failed after a failed test of its unequipped Starliner last year.
But SpaceX’s success doesn’t mean the United States will stop hitchhiking with Russia altogether, Bridenstine said.
“We want a seat swap where American astronauts can fly on Russian Soyuz rockets and Russian cosmonauts can fly on commercial crew vehicles,” he said, explaining that it was necessary in case the Either program would be down for a while.
The reality, however, is that space ties between the United States and Russia, one of the few bright spots in their bilateral relationship, have frayed in recent years, and many remain uncertain.
Russia has said it will not be a partner in the Artemis program to return to the moon in 2024, saying the NASA-led mission is too focused on the United States.
Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency, has also repeatedly mocked SpaceX’s technology and announced this summer that Roscosmos will build rockets that outperform Musk’s.
He told a state news agency he was unimpressed with the Crew Dragon’s water landing, calling it “rather rough” and saying his agency was developing a methane rocket that will be reusable 100 times.
But the fact that a national space agency feels pressured 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 revenue stream.
The cost of round-trip travel on Russian rockets had risen to around $ 85 million per astronaut, according to estimates last year.
– Presidential transition –
Presidential transitions are always a tough time for NASA, and Joe Biden’s rise in January should be no different.
The agency has yet to receive from Congress the tens of billions of dollars needed to finalize the Artemis program.
Bridenstine has announced he will step down, in order to let the new president set his own space exploration goals.
So far, Biden has not commented on the 2024 schedule.
Democratic Party documents say they support NASA’s aspirations to the Moon and Mars, but also insist on elevating the agency’s Earth Sciences division to better understand how climate change is affecting our planet.
© 2020 AFP