It’s been nearly 10 years since the last NASA astronauts launched from United States soil — a long, ignominious streak that’s been compounded by delays and technical challenges.
But now, finally, the space agency on Friday set the date for when it will fly its astronauts from the Florida Space Coast again: May 27.
While the date could change — in spaceflight they often do — the announcement marks a significant milestone in NASA’s winding, at times tortuous, journey to regain its human spaceflight wings since it retired the space shuttle in 2011.
This time, though, the launch will be markedly different than any other in the history of the space agency. Unlike Mercury, Gemini, Apollo or the space shuttle era, the rocket will be owned and operated not by NASA, but by a private company — SpaceX, the hard-charging commercial space company founded by Elon Musk.
For all the company’s triumphs, and its experience flying cargo to the International Space Station for NASA, it has never flown a single human being, a significant and dangerous challenge. NASA has spent years working with the California-based company to ensure its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft can safely deliver astronauts to orbit. And the flight would be the culmination of years of work, which has at times seen setbacks and delays.
With a successful launch, SpaceX would accomplish something of an upset over its rival, Boeing, which also has been under contract from NASA to fly crews to the space station as part of NASA’s “commercial crew program.” Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft suffered a series of significant setbacks during a test flight without astronauts in December that prevented it from docking with the station and prompted an investigation by NASA.
Boeing recently said it would refly the mission without astronauts on board before proceeding to a crewed flight that now may not happen until the end of the year.
For the upcoming SpaceX mission, NASA has assigned two of its most veteran astronauts to the mission: Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Both are married to astronauts. Both have been to space multiple times. Both are former military test pilots.
If all goes to plan, they’d lift off at 4:32 p.m. from the Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A, the historic site that saw many of the Apollo and shuttle missions. Hurley’s presence would mark a bookending for NASA, since he was on the very last shuttle mission, which lifted off from 39A in 2011.
SpaceX’s launch comes at an important time for NASA, which has been scrambling to ensure that it keeps a presence on the International Space Station. With the shuttles retired, NASA has been forced to rely on the Russians for rides to the station, paying as much as $83 million a seat.
On Friday, NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Drew Morgan returned to Earth, leaving Chris Cassidy as the lone American on the station with two Russian cosmonauts.
It’s unclear, however, how long Behnken and Hurley will remain aboard the station. Initially, their mission was expected to be a short stay. But because of the setbacks and delays, suffered by both SpaceX and Boeing, their mission will be extended.
NASA said that the Dragon spacecraft being used in the flight test can remain in orbit for 110 days. But the “specific mission duration will be determined once on station based on the readiness of the next commercial crew launch.”