After reaching orbit, Behnken and Hurley will spend about 19 hours chasing down the International Space Station. The Dragon is designed to fly autonomously, but along the way they will test out some manual maneuvers just to make sure the backup systems are working. Although both astronauts will spend up to three-and-a-half months working on the space station, the Demo-2 mission is ultimately a test flight meant to show that the Crew Dragon capsule performs as expected. Behnken and Hurley will join an exclusive club of just seven astronauts who have been test pilots on a brand new spacecraft.
SpaceX and Boeing, the other company tapped by NASA to develop a commercial crew vehicle, have spent the last decade racing to become the first to deliver NASA astronauts to orbit. Along the way, both companies faced a number of setbacks: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule exploded during a test, Boeing’s Starliner capsule had to be deorbited after a timer failure during an uncrewed demo flight to the space station, and both companies experienced numerous parachute failures during tests. But each failure provided crucial data that the companies needed to make their capsules as safe as possible for crewed launches.
SpaceX won’t just be launching NASA astronauts, of course. Last year, Bigelow Aerospace—a space company run by the billionaire hotelier Robert Bigelow—purchased four flights on the Crew Dragon and is selling tickets for $52 million apiece. In 2018, Elon Musk also sold tickets to the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for an around-the-moon excursion on SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket. If Musk has his way, this will also be the rocket that sends humans to the lunar surface and eventually to Mars.
The Demo-2 launch heralds the era of profit-driven human space exploration. During a press conference earlier in the week—held remotely due to rain—NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine underscored the agency’s commitment to commercial spaceflight as a way to create a robust extraterrestrial economy. “We need to build commercial space stations,” Bridenstine told reporters. “And in order to create the market where these kinds of programs can be capitalized with public-private partnerships, we need to prove that there is an economy for human activity in low Earth orbit.”
In just a few hours, NASA and SpaceX are about to usher the world into this brave new stage of commercial space exploration.
Three hours to launch and it’s muggy as hell at the Kennedy press site. The parking lot sweats rain from a brief downpour and patches of blue sky briefly appear between the clouds.
Reporters from all the major news sites huddle under tents erected on the roofs of a cluster of ramshackle newsrooms built during the Apollo era. Others mill about on the lawn, making small talk from behind NASA-mandated masks. The Covid-19 pandemic has put a damper on the spectacle—under normal circumstances, Kennedy would be crawling with hundreds of reporters and public spectators. Launch day is typically an orgy of rocket fanatics and spaceheads high off pre-launch energy. Not today. It feels like SpaceX organized the world’s biggest party, but hardly anyone bothered to show up.
But no one at Kennedy is talking about the pandemic, really. It’s become a sort of background hum, so pervasive and unrelenting that you no longer notice it. Instead, everyone’s talking about George Floyd, the black man killed by a white police officer this week, and the entire thing caught on video; they’re talking about riots in Minneapolis, and reporters getting arrested live on air. They’re drawing comparisons to 1968, when NASA was preparing to send humans to the moon, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and a crooked politician was elected president.