In the beginning, everyone was skeptical. But Elon Musk’s SpaceX defied expectations – and hopes on Wednesday to make history by ferrying two NASA astronauts into space, the first crew to fly from US soil in nine long years.
US President Donald Trump will be among the spectators at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to witness the launch, which has been given the green light despite months of shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In a nod to virus restrictions, the public has been told to watch via a live stream when Crew Dragon is launched by a Falcon 9 rocket towards the International Space Station.
NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which aims to develop private spacecraft to transport American astronauts to space, began during Barack Obama.
But his successor sees it as a symbol of his strategy to restore American domination of space, both military ̵
He has ordered NASA to return to the moon in 2024, an unlikely timetable but one that has given the stored space agency a boost.
During the 22 years that have passed since the first components of the ISS were launched, only spacecraft have been developed by NASA and the Russian Space Agency has taken crews there.
NASA used the famous shuttle program – huge, extremely complex, winged ships that carried dozens of astronauts into space for three decades.
But their overwhelming cost – $ 200 billion for 135 flights – and two fatalities eventually ended the program. The last shuttle Atlantis landed on July 21, 2011.
Subsequently, NASA astronauts learned Russian and traveled to the ISS in the Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan, in a partnership that survived political tensions between Washington and Moscow.
But it was only meant to be a temporary arrangement. NASA had entrusted two private companies – the Boeing aviation giant and upstart SpaceX – with the task of designing and building canisters that would replace the shuttles.
Nine years later, SpaceX – founded by Musk, the outspoken South African entrepreneur who also built PayPal and Tesla in 2002 – is ready to launch.
At 16.33 (2033 GMT) on Wednesday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch from launch pad 39A with the Crew Dragon capsule at the top.
NASA has awarded SpaceX more than $ 3 billion in contracts since 2011 to build the spaceship.
The capsule will be filled by Robert Behnken, 49, and Douglas Hurley, 53, both veteran space travelers – Hurley piloted Atlantis on his final voyage.
Nineteen hours later they will dock at the ISS, where two Russians and one American are waiting for them.
The weather forecast remains unfavorable, with a 60 percent chance of bad conditions, according to Cape Canaveral forecasters.
The next launch window is Saturday, May 30th. The launch has taken five years longer than planned to come to fruition, but even with the delays SpaceX has stopped Boeing.
Boeing’s test flight on its Starliner failed due to serious software problems and had to be redone.
“It’s been a real success story,” Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA’s Ames Center in Silicon Valley, now teaching at Stanford, told AFP.
“It was a huge skepticism,” recalled Hubbard, who met with Musk before the creation of SpaceX and also chaired a SpaceX security adviser.
“Older people at the older 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, whose first stage will return to land vertically on a barge in the Atlantic.
Since 2012, SpaceX has delivered ISS to NASA again, thanks to the cargo version of the Dragon capsule.
The crew 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 market with a low ground that is open to tourists and businesses.
“We envision one day in the future where we have a dozen low-space space stations. Everything is run by the commercial industry,” said NASA chief Jim Bridenstine.
Musk aims higher: he builds a huge rocket, Starship, to bypass the moon – or even to travel to Mars and ultimately make humanity a “multi-planet species”.
© Agence France Press