SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon cleared to hoist real live American astronauts into space

SpaceX has been given final approval to get into the space taxi business after NASA signed off on “Launch America”, a launch that will see the company’s Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule used to transport a pair of American astronauts into space.

SpaceX, the Falcon 9 and the Dragon capsule have of course been to the ISS before, on several robotic ISS resupply missions. But this is the first time the crewed version of the Dragon has been used with astronauts aboard and the first all-American crewed launch since the last flight of the Space Shuttle in 2011.

Also known as “Demo 2”, the mission will see astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley slip the surly bonds of Earth at 4:33 PM on May 27th and head to the International Space Station.

A final run-through of the launch on Sunday went smoothly, leading to final approval of a flight on which Behnken and Hurley will dock at the ISS and stay there for an “extended” period during which they’ll become part of the ISS Expedition 63 crew. The Dragon used for this mission has a ceiling of 110 days at the ISS but it’s expected new crew will arrive on another commercial service before that time elapses.

The launch is a big deal because the USA has had to hitch rides into space with Russia in recent years. And seeing as Russia is not currently exactly Uncle Sam’s best buddy and president Trump has recognised the strategic significance of space by creating a new branch of the armed forces dedicated to it, sovereign crewed launch capacity is viewed as a very good thing to have.

Of course the USA also has the X-37B robotic space plane which launched again last week and can seemingly pull off very expensive plane change manoeuvres, perhaps exceeding any other space vehicle’s capacity. But the X-37B is semi-secret, can’t carry people and is nowhere near as potent a symbol of American power as a shiny new rocket built by private enterprise.

Nor is the X-37B good at the sort of path-finding work required to return humans to the Moon, and then contemplate journeying to Mars.

NASA’s described the mission as “the final major step before NASA’s Commercial Crew Program certifies Crew Dragon for operational, long-duration missions to the space station.” The Register’s San-Francisco-based crew will keep a Vulture’s eye on the launch as it happens. ®

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