NASA announced April 17 that it has set a May 27 launch date for a SpaceX commercial crew test flight that will be the first mission to launch NASA astronauts to orbit from the United States in nearly a decade.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the launch date in a tweet, saying that NASA “will once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.” The agency had previously stated it anticipated a launch in mid-to-late May, but had not given a specific date before this announcement.
The May 27 launch, which would take place at 4:32 p.m. Eastern from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, will place a Crew Dragon spacecraft into orbit with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley into orbit. The spacecraft will dock with the International Space Station less than 24 hours later for what NASA calls an “extended stay” there. The exact length of the mission has yet to be determined, the agency stated.
Hurley will serve as “spacecraft commander” for the mission, designated Demo-2. He will be responsible for launch, landing and recovery activities. Behnken will be the “joint operations commander” for the mission, responsible for rendezvous, docking and undocking, as well as activities while the spacecraft is docked to the station.
SpaceX has been wrapping up parachute testing despite an incident in a March 24 test where a test article had to be released early from a helicopter. The parachute system was not armed at the time of the release and thus did not deploy. The test article was destroyed on impact with the ground.
SpaceX noted in an April 17 statement that, despite this incident, it had completed 26 tests of the new Mark 3 parachute system to date, including during the in-flight abort test of a Crew Dragon spacecraft in January. Industry sources say at least one more parachute test is scheduled before the Demo-2 launch.
Behnken and Hurley have been completing training for the mission, such as a series of simulations from launch to docking as well as undocking and preparations for re-entry and splashdown. They have also been training for ISS operations, given that their mission, which originally was to spend only a couple weeks at the ISS, will now likely last for two to three months.
The launch is touted as the first flight of American astronauts from American soil since the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, in July 2011. However, it is only the first orbital crewed flight from the United States since the end of the shuttle program. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flew two suborbital flights, in December 2018 and February 2019, that went beyond the altitude of 50 miles (approximately 80 kilometers) used by U.S. government agencies for awarding astronaut wings. The five Virgin Galactic employees who were on those flights late received commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration.