NASA announced on Friday that it has set May 27 as the target launch date for sending two astronauts to the International Space Station from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, aboard a rocket built by the company SpaceX.
Jim Bridenstine, administrator of the space agency, made the announcement on Twitter.
That would end a drought of nearly nine years since the last time people headed to orbit from American soil. On July 8, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from Launchpad 39A; it returned to Earth 11 days later. Since then, NASA has relied on Russia and its Soyuz rockets for transportation to and from the space station.
This time, the launch will again occur at 39A, at 4:32 p.m. on May 27, but almost everything else will be different. Instead of designing and operating its own spaceship as it did for the space shuttles and earlier programs like the Apollo moon landings, NASA has turned to two commercial companies: SpaceX and Boeing.
The first crewed mission is a final step for SpaceX to verify that its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule meet NASA’s requirements. SpaceX conducted a successful demonstration flight — without astronauts aboard — in March last year, but then ran into further obstacles and delays.
In January, SpaceX conducted another critical test, launching the capsule without anyone aboard and deliberately destroying the rocket to show that the escape system was capable of whisking astronauts to safety in case of an emergency.
May’s flight will carry two NASA astronauts: Douglas G. Hurley and Robert L. Behnken. Both have been to space before on space shuttle missions, and Mr. Hurley was the pilot on the last Atlantis mission.
Although NASA has greatly cut back on work at its centers during the coronavirus outbreak — most of its employees are working at home, even for tasks such as directing the Curiosity rover on Mars — the SpaceX flight is regarded as essential work. Florida’s Brevard county, home to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, has not been among the hardest hit areas so far, reporting 192 cases and six deaths through Friday afternoon.
Three others — Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan of NASA and Oleg Skripochka of Russia — returned to Earth safely on Friday morning.
With the smaller crew, scientific work will be curtailed; the remaining crew will spend much of its time maintaining the space station.
The stay of Mr. Hurley and Mr. Behnken at the space station was scheduled to last just two weeks. That may now be extended. In February, Mr. Hurley reported that he was being trained to conduct spacewalks and operate the robotics systems on the space station.
For now, NASA states, “The specific duration of the mission is to be determined.”
If SpaceX’s demonstration mission succeeds, it would be followed by what NASA calls its first operational mission for the Crew Dragon. That flight would take four astronauts — three from NASA and one from the Japanese space agency — to the space station.
Boeing may not be able to get astronauts aboard its spacecraft, called Starliner, until next year. A crewless test mission in December encountered problems shortly after launch when the Starliner failed to fire its thrusters on time to place it in the proper orbit. By the time controllers on the ground corrected the problem, the spacecraft had wasted too much propellant to allow it to dock at the space station.
As engineers diagnosed the issue, they discovered a second error with the spacecraft’s software that could have been led to Starliner’s demise as it prepared for re-entry. They fixed that, and the capsule returned to Earth safely.
A subsequent investigation revealed lapses in Boeing’s software development and testing procedures, and the company will now repeat its uncrewed test flight later this year before moving on to a flight with astronauts aboard.
NASA is negotiating to buy at least one more seat on a Russian Soyuz rocket, which currently costs more than $80 million.