Nasa poised to return to crewed spaceflight with SpaceX capsule launch

Public-private partnership with Elon Musk’s company to send four astronauts to international space station on Saturday

Nasa astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Gover and Michael Hopkins, along with Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa), board a plane from Houston, Texas, en route to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Nasa astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins, along with Soichi Noguchi of Japan, board a plane from Houston, Texas, en route to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photograph: Nasa/James Blair/PA

In a rocket ship perfectly named for the year of a global pandemic, three American astronauts and one from Japan are scheduled to blast off from Florida on Saturday evening as Nasa finally returns to the business of routine crewed spaceflight.

The 7.49pm launch of the SpaceX capsule Resilience from the Kennedy Space Center, a mission officially designated as Crew 1, will be the first time since the final flights of the space shuttle fleet in 2011 that the US space agency has its own operational rotating program of sending humans to the international space station.

It follows the successful test flight earlier this year of SpaceX Demo 2, in which two Nasa astronauts spent two months in orbit evaluating the hardware and software systems aboard the Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket built by Elon Musk’s private space company.

The four members of Crew 1, commander Michael Hopkins, mission specialists Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, settled on the name Resilience to recognize the Nasa and SpaceX teams who worked through the challenges of the Covid-19 outbreak to keep the commercial crew program on track.

“If you look at the definition of resilience, that means functioning well in times of stress or overcoming challenging or stressful events. And I think that all of us agree that 2020 has certainly been a challenging year, a global pandemic, economic hardships, civil unrest, isolation,” Hopkins, a 51-year-old US space force colonel, told reporters in a pre-flight interview last month.

“Quite frankly, it’s in honor of our families, of our colleagues, of our fellow citizens, of our international partners and our leaders that have all shown that same quality, those same characteristics.”

The astronauts before a dress rehearsal for the Crew-1 mission launch on Thursday at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
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The astronauts before a dress rehearsal for the Crew-1 mission launch on Thursday at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photograph: Joel Kowsky/Nasa/AFP/Getty Images

Mission managers at Cape Canaveral led the astronauts, all but Glover veterans of previous space flights, through a dress rehearsal of launch procedures on Thursday. It was the third crucial milestone of the week following a flight readiness review on Tuesday and the official human-rated certification the same day, following a years-long design and development process, of the world’s first crew spacecraft operated by private-public partnership.

“I’m extremely proud to say we are returning regular human spaceflight launches to American soil on an American rocket and spacecraft,” Jim Bridenstine, the Nasa administrator, said.

“This certification milestone is an incredible achievement from Nasa and SpaceX that highlights the progress we can make working together with commercial industry.”

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The Crew 1 astronauts will join Nasa’s Kathleen Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov on the space station, orbiting 250 miles above Earth. Rubins’ seat on the 14 October launch of a Soyuz MS spacecraft from Kazakhstan was the last purchased by Nasa from the Russian space agency, which has ferried American astronauts into space since the final shuttle flight in July 2011.

During their six-month stay, the Crew 1 astronauts will perform a wide array of science experiments.

Up to half a million people are expected to watch the launch, with Nasa officials urging spectators to wear masks and maintain social distancing. “We do want people to be careful when they’re out there. From a Nasa and SpaceX perspective, and I’m sure a Jaxa [Japan aerospace exploration agency] perspective, we’d be really sad if this was a super-spreader event,” Kathy Lueders, head of Nasa’s human spaceflight program, said.

Saturday night’s scheduled launch has been given a 70% chance of a “go” by weather forecasters from the 45th space wing at Cape Canaveral air force station. Remnants of Hurricane Eta, which crossed Florida on Thursday as a tropical storm, are expected to be still swirling in the Atlantic, affecting several abort landing sites that could be needed in the event of an emergency during the spacecraft’s ascent.

A backup launch opportunity is set for Sunday at 7.27pm.