NASA astronauts go back to the future with capsule launch

  • This illustration made available by SpaceX depicts the company's Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket during the uncrewed In-Flight Abort Test for NASA's Commercial Crew Program. (SpaceX via AP)

    This illustration made available by SpaceX depicts the company's Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket during the uncrewed In-Flight Abort Test for NASA's Commercial Crew Program. (SpaceX via AP) Associated Press

  • This April 2020 photo made available by SpaceX shows the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft undergoing final processing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla,, in preparation for the May 27, 2020, Demo-2 launch with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station for NASA's Commercial Crew Program. (SpaceX via AP)

    This April 2020 photo made available by SpaceX shows the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft undergoing final processing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla,, in preparation for the May 27, 2020, Demo-2 launch with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station for NASA's Commercial Crew Program. (SpaceX via AP) Associated Press

  • In this Thursday, March 19, 2020 photo made available by SpaceX, astronauts Doug Hurley, foreground, and Bob Behnken work in SpaceX's flight simulator at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., as SpaceX teams in Firing Room 4 at Kennedy Space Center and the company's Mission Control in Hawthorne, Calif., along with NASA flight controllers in Mission Control Houston, run a full simulation of launch and docking of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. (SpaceX via AP)

    In this Thursday, March 19, 2020 photo made available by SpaceX, astronauts Doug Hurley, foreground, and Bob Behnken work in SpaceX's flight simulator at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., as SpaceX teams in Firing Room 4 at Kennedy Space Center and the company's Mission Control in Hawthorne, Calif., along with NASA flight controllers in Mission Control Houston, run a full simulation of launch and docking of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. (SpaceX via AP) Associated Press

  • This Saturday, March 2, 2019 image from video made available by SpaceX shows a life-size test mannequin and a stuffed toy in the Dragon capsule as the it launches into orbit en route to the International Space Station, arriving 27 hours after liftoff. (SpaceX via AP)

    This Saturday, March 2, 2019 image from video made available by SpaceX shows a life-size test mannequin and a stuffed toy in the Dragon capsule as the it launches into orbit en route to the International Space Station, arriving 27 hours after liftoff. (SpaceX via AP) Associated Press

  • FILE - In this May 28, 1971 file photo, Apollo 15 astronauts Al Worden, command module pilot; Dave Scott, commander; and Jim Irwin, lunar module pilot, sit in a boilerplate spacecraft and get ready for the hatch closing to start their water egress training session five miles off Galveston, Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. The three astronauts plan to visit the moon with blastoff scheduled for July 26, 1971.

    FILE - In this May 28, 1971 file photo, Apollo 15 astronauts Al Worden, command module pilot; Dave Scott, commander; and Jim Irwin, lunar module pilot, sit in a boilerplate spacecraft and get ready for the hatch closing to start their water egress training session five miles off Galveston, Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. The three astronauts plan to visit the moon with blastoff scheduled for July 26, 1971. Associated Press

  • FILE - In this Jan. 2, 1962 file picture, astronaut John Glenn climbs into the "Friendship 7" Mercury capsule at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

    FILE - In this Jan. 2, 1962 file picture, astronaut John Glenn climbs into the "Friendship 7" Mercury capsule at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Associated Press

  • FILE - In this March 16, 1966 file photo, astronauts David R. Scott, pilot, left, and Neil A. Armstrong, command pilot, sit in their Gemini 8 spacecraft after their emergency landing in the western Pacific Ocean. Navy divers, who jumped into the ocean to attach flotation collar under the spacecraft, stand outside the capsule awaiting the destroyer USS Mason. (NASA via AP)

    FILE - In this March 16, 1966 file photo, astronauts David R. Scott, pilot, left, and Neil A. Armstrong, command pilot, sit in their Gemini 8 spacecraft after their emergency landing in the western Pacific Ocean. Navy divers, who jumped into the ocean to attach flotation collar under the spacecraft, stand outside the capsule awaiting the destroyer USS Mason. (NASA via AP) Associated Press

  • This August 1971 photo made available by NASA shows the Apollo 15 command and service modules in lunar orbit seen from the lunar module, with the lunar surface below. (NASA via AP)

    This August 1971 photo made available by NASA shows the Apollo 15 command and service modules in lunar orbit seen from the lunar module, with the lunar surface below. (NASA via AP) Associated Press

  • FILE - In this Thursday, May 21, 2020 file photo, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft is rolled out of the horizontal integration facility at Launch Complex 39A as preparations continue for the Demo-2 mission at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

    FILE - In this Thursday, May 21, 2020 file photo, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft is rolled out of the horizontal integration facility at Launch Complex 39A as preparations continue for the Demo-2 mission at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP) Associated Press

  • In this Friday, March 8, 2019 image from video made available by SpaceX, the company's Crew Dragon descends to the Atlantic Ocean for a splashdown after a deorbit burn to reenter Earth's atmosphere, returning from the International Space Station. (SpaceX via AP)

    In this Friday, March 8, 2019 image from video made available by SpaceX, the company's Crew Dragon descends to the Atlantic Ocean for a splashdown after a deorbit burn to reenter Earth's atmosphere, returning from the International Space Station. (SpaceX via AP) Associated Press

 
 
Posted5/25/2020 7:00 AM

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- It's back to the future as NASA astronauts launch again from the U.S. - aboard a retro-style 'Right Stuff' capsule.

Make no mistake: This is not your father's - or grandfather's - capsule.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 


SpaceX's Dragon crew capsule outshines NASA's old Apollo spacecraft in virtually every way. The Dragon's clean lines and minimalist interior, with touchscreens instead of a mess of switches and knobs, make even the space shuttles seem yesteryear.

This fresh take on a vintage look will be on full display Wednesday when SpaceX plans to launch NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station - a first for a private company.

It will be the first astronaut launch from Florida since Atlantis closed out the space shuttle program in 2011, and the first American-made capsule to carry people into orbit since the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket - with the crew capsule atop - will soar from the same pad used for both of those earlier missions.

Russia's workhorse Soyuz capsules, still in use after a half-century plus, have kept NASA astronauts flying to the space station. While reliable, the Soyuz looks dated compared with the snappy Dragon.

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'We want it to not only be as safe and reliable as you'd expect from the most advanced spacecraft in the world ... we also want it to look amazing and look beautiful,' said Benji Reed, a SpaceX mission director.

SpaceX and Boeing, NASA's other commercial crew provider, opted for capsules from the start.

Another early competitor, Sierra Nevada Corp., proposed a small space plane for astronauts, but did not make the final cut. NASA has since hired the company to haul space station supplies aboard its mini shuttle starting as soon as next year.

There was no need for another flying machine like the shuttle, which was built to haul hefty satellites and space station parts, said retired NASA manager Steve Payne.

'What we're trying to do now is just taxi service up and down, and you don't need the huge semi anymore. You can use a sedan," Payne told The Associated Press.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

'Yes, wings are nice. They give you more options as to where to land and a little more control,' said Payne, a former Navy fighter pilot. "But they're not absolutely necessary. And since we're trying to make this inexpensive and reusable and as simple as we can make it so that it's cost effective, capsules work.'

SpaceX based its crew capsule on its long-running reusable cargo capsule, also named Dragon and ending space station missions with old-fashioned splashdowns.

The two astronauts were deeply involved in the new capsule's development over the past five years. In true test flight fashion, they offered suggestions and tweaked here and there, to benefit not just themselves but future crews.

'Our goal through this entire process is to not turn the spacecraft into Bob and Doug's excellent machine, with a bunch of things that only Doug likes or only Bob likes,' Behnken said.

Although the full automated Dragon has four seats lined up in a row, only the center two will be occupied for this especially risky test flight. A test dummy soloed on last year's Dragon crew capsule debut.

This Dragon now has a name, courtesy of its crew. Hurley and Behnken promise to reveal it on launch day, one of many traditions they're setting into motion as NASA's commercial crew program finally takes wing.

The practice hearkens back to NASA's early days: Project Mercury's John Glenn became the first American to circle the Earth aboard Friendship 7; Gemini 3's Gus Grissom and John Young sailed into orbit aboard Molly Brown; and Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins flew to the moon aboard Columbia.

'We have to save some suspense for the mission itself,' Behnken said. 'We've got something for you to look forward to on launch day.'

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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