Commentary

NASA's First Manned Commercial Spaceflight Set To Launch

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is scheduled to literally lift off tomorrow afternoon after two of its astronauts climb aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule atop a booster docked at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

It will take about 19 hours for Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to hook up with the International Space Station, which is traveling at an average speed of 17,227 miles per hour some 220 miles above Earth. 

“Elon Musk’s First Astronaut Launch Is One Giant Leap For Space Capitalism,” reads  the headline above Alex Knapp’s story for Forbes.

“It’s the first time ever that astronauts will travel to orbit on a privately owned spacecraft (previous space-tourism stunts have been either decidedly sub-orbital or provided by the Russian government). Behnken and Hurley will be hitching a ride on a Dragon capsule, launched by a Falcon 9 rocket, both designed and manufactured by Elon Musk-founded SpaceX. The pair will even be conveyed to the launch pad on Tesla-manufactured electric cars,” Knapp writes.

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The Commercial Crew Program, “aimed at developing private spacecraft to transport American astronauts into space, began under Barack Obama. But his successor sees it as a symbol of his strategy to reassert American domination of space, both military -- with his creation of the Space Force -- and civilian. He has ordered NASA to return to the Moon in 2024, an unlikely timetable but one that has given the storied space agency a boost,” writes  AFP’s Ivan Couronne for Science Alert.

The program “involves two commercial spaceflight companies, SpaceX and Boeing, building and launching crew capsules designed to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. SpaceX has a history of cargo and payload launches, but this will be the company's first time sending humans off this rock,” writes  CNET’s Amanda Kooser.

NASA maintains that it “represents a revolutionary approach to government and commercial collaborations for the advancement of space exploration” in its press kit.

“If the flight to the ISS is successful, NASA is expected to buy four seats on a follow-up flight later this year, the first time its astronauts will have become paying passengers on a commercially owned and operated space vehicle,” writes  Richard Waters for Financial Times.

“This week’s launch marks the moment when the private sector starts to lift humans off the face of the planet ‘reliably and cheaply,’ said Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize, the competition which led to the first private manned flight to the edge of space 16 years ago. ‘It’s the first, fully commercially built, entrepreneurial capability,’ he said. ‘What Elon Musk has done is nothing short of extraordinary, outpacing the U.S. government-backed industries, Russia and China.’”

It also has a very human face that should play well in media coverage.

“In the past, NASA’s astronauts may have been pitted against each other in ruthless competition for flight assignments, preening for the cameras and strutting their ego-fueled ‘Right Stuff’ to orbit and back, always eager to get ahead.

“But Behnken and Hurley -- Bob and Doug, as most everyone calls them -- are more like a couple of self-effacing old pals, with an easygoing relationship shaped by a shared history that includes serving in each other’s weddings and having trained side by side for this mission for five years,” writes Christian Davenport  in a profile of the two former military test pilots for The Washington Post.

“Their rapport, in the cockpit and in training, is fueled by trust and an intimate sense of each other, people who know them say, a sort of fraternal bond that allows them to tease each other as well as finish each other’s sentences. It gives them a late-night-talk-show kind of chemistry, at turns goofy and sincere,” Davenport adds.

“The launch is scheduled for 4:33 pm EDT. It’s an instantaneous launch window, so if SpaceX can’t launch exactly on time, it will be pushed back to another day. NASA has a long list of weather criteria that must be met. …. The backup launch date is scheduled for Saturday, May 30,” writes  Daniel Overhaus for Wired.

“The launch will be broadcast live by NASA and SpaceX. NASA’s prelaunch coverage of the Demo-2 mission will begin at 12:15 pm EST on May 27 and the agency will continue to provide live updates of the mission until Behnken and Hurley dock with the space station at 11:30 am EST on Thursday,” Overhaus adds. 

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