SpaceX Set to Win Race for First Private Company to Put Humans in Space

UPDATE (5/8/2020): Updated to indicate that Jetty Park is now open at 25% capacity and to indicate that Cocoa Beach parking lots are open with limited capacity.

Spaceflight fans around the country were elated when, with a Twitter announcement on April 17, Jim Bridenstine and NASA made the announcement that SpaceX will be launching the Crew Dragon Demo-2 (DM-2) mission on May 27.

The DM-2 mission will send Douglas G. Hurley and Robert L. Behnken to the ISS for a two-to-three month stay. During that time, they will be running the craft through all necessary steps to check out all the systems and certify Crew Dragon for full fledged ISS missions that will begin later this year.

Why is this important?

THIS IS THE FIRST CREWED SPACECRAFT BEING FLOWN FROM THE UNITED STATES SINCE 2011!!! For space fans on the Space Coast this means that they will once again be able to witness historic flights of crewed American spacecraft from their own backyards. Until 2011, the United States was a “top-tier” spacefaring country, having human spaceflight capability, operating a space station and launching their own crews. After the shuttering of the Shuttle program, the United States fell in stature and since that time has spent billions of dollars purchasing seats on Russian Soyuz capsules to get personnel to and from the ISS. With the return of human spaceflight from the United States, NASA regains their stature and rejoins China and Russia in the top tier.

In 2010, as the Shuttle program was winding down, NASA developed a new program designed the develop launch capabilities among private vendors called Commercial Crew Development program. This program gave funding to private companies on a fixed-price pay-for-performance plan. Over many phases, Boeing and SpaceX have received NASA funding and, in 2014, both were selected to fly a total of six missions each to the ISS. SpaceX continued to develop their Crew Dragon/Falcon 9 system and Boeing developed the CST-100 Starliner/Atlas V system. Both companies performed test flights of their human-rated system in 2019. SpaceX launched the DM-1 mission in March 2019, sending their Crew Dragon capsule to the ISS and safely returning it home. Boeing launched their Orbital Test Flight (OTF) in December 2019, but due to a Mission Elapsed Timer anomaly failed to reach the ISS and instead returned Starliner to Earth early. Both programs were on track to produce crewed launches this year, but Boeing and NASA announced in April that they would refly the OTF in the second half of 2020, with a crewed launch expected no earlier than 2021.

So, Who Are the Astronauts?

Doug “Chunky” Hurley and Bob Behnken are slated as the primary crew for DM-2. This will be the third flight for both astronauts. Hurley will act as spacecraft commander and Behnken will act as joint operations commander once aboard the ISS.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (left) and Bob Behnken (right) are slated to be the first people SpaceX launches into orbit. (Image credit: SpaceX)

Douglas Hurley was selected as a Space Shuttle pilot in 2000. He was the pilot for STS-127, ISS Assembly Mission 2J/A and for STS-135, the final mission of the Shuttle Program. He has amassed over 683 hours in space. After the end of the Shuttle program he was made the Assistant Director of New Programs for the Flight Crew Operations Directorate at Johnson Space Center. In 2014 he became the Assistant Director of the Commercial Crew program, where he remained until selected as one of four Commercial Crew astronauts to be considered for flights aboard Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner. In that capacity he worked with both Boeing and SpaceX during the development and implementation of their respective crew programs.

Robert Behnken was selected as a Space Shuttle mission specialist in 2000. His first space flight was on STS-123 in March 2008. He conducted three spacewalks during that mission. He also conducted three spacewalks during STS-130. Both flights were ISS construction missions. He accumulated 708 hours in space on his two space flights. He was named Chief of the Astronaut Office in 2012, a position he held until 2015, when he was selected as a Commercial Crew astronaut in 2015. Like Hurley, he worked closely with both SpaceX and Boeing on their Commercial Crew variants.

How Should We Watch the Launch?

After the announcement of the launch date, Jim Bridenstine called for people to not travel to the Space Coast to watch the launch, citing concerns of COVID-19 transmissions. “We’re asking people to stay at home to watch from home,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “We want them engaged, we want them to participate. We want them to tell their friends and family but we also want them to watch from a place that’s not the Kennedy Space Center.”

After Bridenstine’s statement, Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey encouraged people to come and see the launch. While his intentions are good, viewing the launch may prove to be difficult to people without knowledge of the area. Most of the public viewing areas that would normally be used are closed until further notice. KSC, Playalinda Beach, and Exploration Tower are all closed as of this writing. That means, that the few areas which remain open, like Cocoa Beach will be severely crowded. Parking on the side of the road to watch launches is illegal, though most policemen and deputies are fairly lax about it because they understand the excitement.

It is the recommendation of this writer that people should stay home for the launch. You will get a better view, a constant stream of technical data, video feeds from outside and inside of the spacecraft, and will not endanger yourselves. Now, I know most people won’t heed this advice. In that case, Jetty Park is open at 25% capacity, but it will fill up quickly. Cocoa is open, but parking is limited in capacity. Space View Park in Titusville may be open at that time and it provides mission audio as well as fairly close views of launches. In any case, please follow social distancing requirements and be safe if you decide to travel to the Space Coast for this historic event.

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