Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley Make Final Preparations for NASA's First Private Space Launch

Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley Make Final Preparations for NASA's First Private Space LaunchWASHINGTON, LELEMUKU.COM - Two American space agency astronauts are making final preparations for the first crewed space flight to launch from American soil since 2011.

Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley - both former NASA shuttle pilots – arrived at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center last week. They had been training at their home base in Houston, Texas.

The astronauts are set to launch from Kennedy on a test mission to the International Space Station, or ISS, on Wednesday, May 27.

They will fly on a Crew Dragon spacecraft, carried by a Falcon 9 rocket. The American company SpaceX designed and built each. The flight will be the first by a private company to send astronauts into orbit.

The trip will also mark the first U.S.-based space launch since NASA ended its space shuttle program nine years ago. Since then, American astronauts have been flying to the ISS on Russian rockets launched from Kazakhstan.

Hurley was one of the four astronauts who took part in the final NASA shuttle flight in July 2011. Speaking to reporters in Florida, he said “it has been a long road” back. But he added that it was “humbling to be here to start out the next launch from the United States.”

Behnken called it “an awesome time to be an astronaut, with a new spacecraft.”

Kennedy Space Center’s director, former shuttle commander Robert Cabana, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, welcomed the astronauts on their arrival. The NASA chief told the two he saw them as “a bright light for all of America right now.”

The crowd in attendance was greatly reduced because of the coronavirus crisis. The astronauts did not wear nose and mouth covers but stayed socially distant. Cabana and Bridenstine wore face coverings.

Bridenstine spoke to the group. During these difficult times, he said, “this is a moment when we can all look and be inspired as to what the future holds.”

The two astronauts do not know how long they will remain at the ISS, but the stay is expected to last at least a month. NASA has said the length of stay will be decided after their arrival and will be “based on the readiness” of the next crew launch.

Only one American is currently on the ISS, astronaut Chris Cassidy. NASA says the three U.S. astronauts will team up to test the Crew Dragon’s systems and carry out research and maintenance operations.

Some of the tests will aim to confirm that the spacecraft will be able to carry out future missions while connected to the station for up to 210 days, NASA said.

The mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which partners with private American companies to develop U.S. spaceflight systems.

NASA selected SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to transport crews from the United States to the ISS. The space agency is paying the two companies a combined $6.8 billion to build competing rocket and capsule systems.

Boeing is also preparing to launch astronauts aboard its Starliner spacecraft to the ISS. But the company suffered a setback in December during an unmanned test flight to reach the space station.

After lifting off for the test flight, the Starliner experienced software issues that sent the spacecraft to the wrong orbit, causing officials to cancel its trip to the ISS. Boeing says it has been working on the software issues and plans to carry out another unpiloted test flight later this year.(VOA)

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