In mid-March, NASA sent home nearly all of its 17,000-person workforce amid the US outbreak of the coronavirus.
But if the agency and its commercial partner SpaceX have their way, the pandemic won’t sideline what NASA’s head portrayed as a “critical” moment in spaceflight history scheduled for later this month.
On May 27, two NASA astronauts and veteran spaceflyers, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, are scheduled to fly SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon spaceship into orbit. The men will take about a day to reach the International Space Station (ISS), where they’ll dock, climb aboard the football field-size laboratory, and begin a roughly six-month stay before returning to Earth.
If the Demo-2 test mission succeeds, it’d mark the first-ever spaceflight of human passengers by SpaceX, which tech mogul Elon Musk founded in 2002.
SpaceX started working with NASA in 2006, and since 2012 has been developing Crew Dragon — essentially a seven-person space taxi — in a public-partnership called the Commercial Crew Program. The goal: resurrect NASA’s long-lost ability to launch astronauts into space from the US.
“We are going to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said during a televised briefing on May 1. “We’re going to do it here in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and I’m going to tell you that this is a high-priority mission to the United States of America.”
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship being mated to its trunk on April 30, 2020, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The spacecraft was built for NASA’s Demo-2 test mission.
SpaceX via NASA
NASA views the mission with so much urgency because the US has been stuck in a spaceflight pickle for nearly a decade. Bridenstine noted that Crew Dragon represents “a new era in human spaceflight” since it’s poised to become the first brand-new crewed space vehicle to fly since 1981 (the first space shuttle mission).
In July 2011, the agency retired its decades-old fleet of 100-ton space shuttles. NASA has had only one way to fly astronauts to and from the ISS since then — Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft — and the monopoly has not helped the agency’s budget.
NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reported in November 2019 that the agency had paid Russia $3.9 billion to fly 70 astronauts on Soyuz. However, the per-seat price used to be about $21 million but at one point skyrocketed to more than $85 million for a round trip ticket.
With the emergence of a new human-rated US spaceship, NASA could instead start trading seats with Russia for access to the ISS.
“We see a day when Russian cosmonauts can launch on American rockets and American astronauts can launch on Russian rockets,” Bridenstine said Friday, adding: “Remember, half of the International Space Station is Russian.”
But most at stake is the use of orbital research facilities on the ISS, for which the US has paid handsomely to build — about $100 billion over two decades — yet has struggled to fully utilize by flying a minimal number of astronauts aboard Soyuz.
“We need to make sure that it has its maximum complement of crew so we can get the highest return on investment,” Bridenstine said. “That’s what Commercial Crew is all about.”
NASA’s OIG found in 2018 that the agency was struggling to achieve as much science as it could because the Soyuz — being only able to fly three people at a time — has rarely kept the space station fully crewed. As a result, crews have spent an increasing amount of time just maintaining the ISS and its critical systems.
With ambitious plans to build a permanent base on the moon and eventually reach Mars with a program called Artemis, that’s a big problem for NASA.
“If the remaining health risks and technology demonstrations cannot be fully tested on the ISS, NASA may have to accept higher levels of risk than planned for future exploration missions,” Paul K. Martin, NASA’s inspector general, testified before Congress in July 2019.
“We’re very much interested in significantly increasing the amount of crew time and the amount of throughput that we can do … on board the International Space Station,” Kirk Shireman, NASA’s ISS program manager, said during Friday’s televised briefing, adding the research “can’t be done anywhere else, certainly on the planet.”
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (left) and Bob Behnken (right), who are scheduled to be the first people that SpaceX launches into orbit.
Behnken and Hurley said that, per standard practice, NASA will quarantine them a couple of weeks prior to launch.
The space agency said it has taken extra precautions to minimize contact with the astronauts during their final months of training and mission preparations.
“We knew it was going to be tough getting ready for launch,” Kathy Lueders, who manages the Commercial Crew Program for NASA, said during Friday’s briefing. But she added that even without COVID-19, the agency has gloves, masks, and procedures in place for the crew “to make sure that they don’t infect the International Space Station.”
From left: SpaceX founder Elon Musk, NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Doug Hurley, Bob Behnken, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, and astronaut Mike Hopkins speak inside the crew access arm with the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft visible behind them during a tour of Launch Complex 39A. The spacecraft launched the Demo-1 mission on March 1, 2019.
SpaceX completed an uncrewed Demo-1 flight of a Crew Dragon in March 2019. Though that space capsule exploded during a ground test later that year, SpaceX assembled another one to complete a dramatic launch-abort test in January. The company is due for a flight readiness review on May 20, or about a week before the launch of Demo-2, NASA mission managers said on Friday.
Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and COO, said the rocket company has “grown up” enough to launch people since its founding 18 years ago, in part due to its rich history of learning from failures.
“I think sometimes the aerospace industry shies away from failure in the development phase. It looks bad, politically. It’s tough, and the media certainly makes a lot out of failures,” Shotwell told Business Insider. But, she added, “the best way to learn is to push your systems to their limit, which includes your people, systems, and your processes, and learn where you’re weak and make things better.”
Boeing, another Commercial Crew Program participant, flew an uncrewed CST-100 Starliner spaceship in December but nearly lost the vehicle due to software-coding errors. The company plans to redo the uncrewed test flight — at a cost of $420 million, according to Parabolic Arc — before launching a crewed follow-up test, which may not happen until 2021.
NASA, for its part, hopes to take advantage of two commercial spacecraft to keep prices competitive and options plentiful in reaching the ISS.
“The International Space Station is a critical capability for the United States of America. Having access to it is also critical,” Bridenstine said. “We are moving forward very rapidly with this program that is so important to our nation and, in fact, to the entire world.”
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World news – US – Why NASA believes the first SpaceX rocket mission carrying humans into orbit is ‘critical’ and must move forward despite the growing coronavirus pandemic.