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NASA, SpaceX bringing astronaut launches back to home turf

Marcia Dunn
Associated Press

Cape Canaveral, Fla. – For the first time in nearly a decade, U.S. astronauts are about to blast into orbit aboard an American rocket from American soil. And for the first time in the history of human spaceflight, a private company is running the show.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is the conductor and NASA the customer as businesses begin chauffeuring astronauts to the International Space Station.

FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2019 file photo, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, left, and Bob Behnken work with teams from NASA and SpaceX to rehearse crew extraction from SpaceX's Crew Dragon, which will be used to carry humans to the International Space Station, at the Trident Basin in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The curtain rises next Wednesday with the scheduled liftoff of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule with two NASA astronauts, a test flight years in the making.

The drama unfolds from the exact spot where men flew to the moon and the last space shuttle soared from Kennedy Space Center.

While Florida’s Space Coast has seen plenty of launches since the shuttle’s farewell tour in 2011 – even at the height of the coronavirus pandemic – they were for satellites, robotic explorers and space station supplies. The only route to orbit for astronauts was on Russian rockets.

NASA’s newest test pilots, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, are launching from home turf with SpaceX presiding over the countdown.

“Getting a chance again to see human spaceflight in our own backyard,” Behnken said. “That’s the thing that’s most exciting for me.”

The cosmic-size shift to private companies allows NASA to zero in on deep space travel. The space agency is busting to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 under orders from the White House, a deadline looking increasingly unlikely even as three newly chosen commercial teams rush to develop lunar landers. Mars also beckons.

“We’re building momentum toward a much more exciting future,” said John Logsdon, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a professor emeritus.

The Russian launch site in Kazakhstan is out of the way and out of sight. Launching crews again from Florida is sure to fire up the public, Logsdon noted.

Adding to the appeal is the flash generated by Musk, SpaceX’s chief executive, designer and founder who shot his red Tesla Roadster into outer space two years ago during the first flight of a supersized Falcon Heavy rocket.

In a touch of Musk showmanship – he also runs the electric car company – Hurley and Behnken will ride to the launch pad in a gull-winged Tesla Model X, white with black trim just like the astronauts’ spacesuits and the rocket itself.

The Dragon riders appreciate Musk’s hands-on approach.

“On more than one occasion he has looked both Bob and I right in the eye and said, ‘Hey, if there’s anything you guys are not comfortable with or that you’re seeing, please tell me and we’ll fix it.’” Hurley said.

While trumpeting the return of astronaut launches, NASA is urging spectators to stay away because of the pandemic. But beaches near Kennedy are now open, and the local sheriff is welcoming visitors even though inside the space center, the number of guests will be severely limited. Among the exceptions: both astronaut wives – who have flown in space themselves – and their young sons. Vice President Mike Pence, chairman of the National Space Council, is also going, and President Donald Trump told reporters Thursday that he’s thinking of attending, too.

Liftoff is set for 4:33 p.m. Wednesday.