NASA to resume launching astronauts from US soil

Only three countries have launched people into orbit since 1961.

NASA and SpaceX have picked 27 May for resuming astronaut launches from the United States after nine years of complete Russian dependence.

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NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the launch date on Friday.

Astronauts have not launched into orbit from the US since NASA’s last space shuttle flight in 2011. SpaceX aims to end the drought by sending two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

“On May 27, @NASA will once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil!” Bridenstine tweeted.

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Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will blast off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, departing from the same Kennedy Space Centre launch pad used by shuttle Atlantis in July 2011, as well as the Apollo moonshots a half-century ago.

Mr Hurley served as pilot on that last shuttle mission and will be the spacecraft commander for SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule.

Nasa astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley © Alex Gallardo/AP
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley © Alex Gallardo/AP

Launch day will be a Wednesday, with a liftoff time of 16:32 EDT (20:32 GMT). It is too soon to know whether the coronavirus pandemic will prompt crowd restrictions.

Only three countries have launched people into orbit since 1961: Russia, the US and China, in that order. SpaceX would be the first company.

SpaceX successfully conducted its first test flight of a Dragon crew capsule a year ago, sending the capsule — minus a crew — to the space station. The returned capsule was accidentally destroyed during ground testing at Cape Canaveral, further delaying the astronaut launch.

With the space station crew now down to three, Mr Hurley and Mr Behnken will spend weeks, perhaps months, helping to maintain the orbiting lab. The length of their mission is still under review, according to NASA.

NASA, meanwhile, is in the process of buying another seat on a Russian rocket. Russian Soyuz capsules have been the sole means of crew transportation to and from the space station since 2011.

SpaceX has been using Falcon 9 rockets to launch cargo to the space station in the company’s original Dragon capsules since 2012. NASA turned to private companies for deliveries once the shuttle programme ended.

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Boeing also is working to launch astronauts under NASA’s commercial crew programme, but the company’s effort suffered a serious setback following last December’s botched test flight.

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Launching without anyone on board, Boeing’s Starliner capsule failed to reach the space station after ending up in the wrong orbit and came close to destruction twice because of software errors. Boeing plans to repeat the test flight, again without astronauts, this autumn.

Reader Q&A: Why is a rocket trajectory curved after launch?

Asked by: Fred Wilhelm, US

Students have long been taught that all projectiles follow a curved path known as a parabola. The explanation is that as they fly, they cover distance both horizontally and vertically – but only the latter is affected by the force of gravity, which bends the path of the projectile into a parabola.

For long-range rockets, things are more complex. For example, air resistance must be taken into account. But even ignoring that, a projectile doesn’t really follow a parabola – because the Earth isn’t flat. This means that gravity doesn’t simply pull objects straight back down.

Instead, it pulls them towards the centre of the Earth, whose direction changes as the projectile moves further down-range, away from the launch site. Detailed calculations then reveal that the true trajectory is not a parabola, but part of an ellipse.

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