A new era in the American space program is set to begin as two veteran NASA astronauts lift off aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon en route to the International Space Station. Weather permitting, the launch is scheduled for 4:33 p.m. EDT/3:33 p.m. CDT Wednesday from Florida's Kennedy Space Center.
It will be the first launch of American astronauts from U.S. soil in nearly nine years, since the final flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2011. It will also be the first manned flight for the SpaceX Crew Dragon and the first time a commercial spacecraft has carried NASA astronauts into orbit.
The crew, commander Douglas Hurley and astronaut Robert Behnken, both joined the astronaut corps in 2000. Hurley, a former Marine fighter pilot and test pilot, is a veteran of two previous space missions, serving as pilot of the final space shuttle flight in 2011. Behnken, a former Air Force test pilot, has logged more than 708 hours in space on two shuttle missions and completed six spacewalks.
The Crew Dragon will be carried aloft by a Falcon 9 rocket with 1.7 million pounds of thrust from its first stage engines. After powering the spacecraft out of the lower atmosphere, SpaceX will attempt to land the first stage on an off-shore droneship while the second stage continues the climb to orbit.
Twelve minutes after liftoff, the Crew Dragon will be released to fly on its own. It's scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station at 11:40 a.m. Thursday. There, they'll join a crew of three others, including commander Chris Cassidy and two Russian cosmonauts, whose work on the orbiting station is largely devoted to scientific research in microgravity.
Their exact return date will be determined later, with weather conditions being a factor.
The mission, known as Demo 2, is the culmination of a six-year, multibillion-dollar NASA effort to end its reliance on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from the space station. The Commercial Crew Program will eventually include launches by Boeing as well as SpaceX.
The launch would normally be expected to draw huge crowds of spectators to Florida's "Space Coast," but the Kennedy Space Center remains closed to non-essential personnel due to the coronavirus pandemic and the site will not be open for public launch viewing.
The astronauts' families are there for the big day, but with only a handful of invited guests instead of a large gathering of supporters. Both Hurley and Behnken are married to fellow astronauts: Hurley's wife, Karen Nyberg, recently retired from NASA after two space missions, including a long-duration stay aboard the space station, while Behnken's wife, Megan McArthur, helped repair the Hubble Space Telescope during a final shuttle servicing mission in 2009.
"We were looking forward to celebrating with lots of people who could physically come to the Cape and enjoy watching the launch in person," McArthur said. "But I have gotten so many notes of support from people all over the country saying hey, we're still going to be with you, we're going to be watching from home, but we're still cheering Bob and Doug on, you know — go, Dragon! — and so people are still really, really excited about it."
Reporting by CBS News space consultant Bill Harwood.