For the first time in almost a decade, the United States is poised to launch its own astronauts into space.
If the weather in Florida cooperates on Wednesday afternoon, a pair of NASA astronauts with 20 years experience each will rocket away from the Kennedy Space Center aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.
It will come almost 59 years to the date (May 5, 1961) that America sent its first astronaut into space, a trip made by Alan Shepard Jr.
If all goes as planned for the Falcon 9 rocket after the 4:33 p.m. ET launch and acceleration to 17,000 miles per hour, the capsule will dock with the International Space Station on Thursday afternoon.
The two veteran astronauts -- Robert Behnken, 49, and Douglas Hurley, 53 -- will remain aboard the space station for an undetermined amount of time, perhaps as long as three months.
According to SpaceX website, "this mission will validate the company's crew transportation system, including the launch pad, rocket, spacecraft and operational capabilities. This also will be the first time NASA astronauts will test the spacecraft systems in orbit."
Both astronauts have significant experience in space gained through the space shuttle program, which concluded in 2011 after 135 missions.
Behnken has a doctorate in mechanical engineering and rose to the the rank of colonel in the U.S. Air Force, where he served before joining NASA in 2000. He flew aboard Space Shuttle missions STS-123 (2008) and STS-130 (2010) as a mission specialist.
Behnken has more than 708 hours in space, including 37 hours of spacewalk time.
Behnken will be the joint operations commander for the mission, responsible for rendezvous, docking and undocking from the space station.
Hurley is an engineer and former U.S. Marine Corps pilot. He piloted space shuttle missions STS-127 (July 2009) and STS-135 (July 2011), the final flight of the program.
Hurley will be the spacecraft commander, responsible for launch, landing and recovery.
The rocket and systems were built by SpaceX, a private California-based company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk. It's being funded by the U.S. government under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
In 2010, NASA changed from space flight being a government-funded venture to contracting with private companies for low-Earth orbit efforts, allowing the agency to focus on longer-range missions, perhaps back to the moon in a few years.
During a press conference, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine referred to Wednesday's launch as "the big show."
“This time we’re doing it differently than we’ve ever done it before," Bridenstine said. "NASA is not going to purchase, own and operate the hardware the way we used to.
"We are partnering with commercial industry with the intent that they would go get customers that are not NASA, drive down our costs and increase the access to space."
When the mission at the ISS is complete, the two astronauts are scheduled to undock and depart, re-entering the Earth atmosphere and splashing down just off Florida's Atlantic coast.
The crew will be picked up by the SpaceX's Go Navigator recovery vessel and returned to Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Since the space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA has relied upon Soyuz rockets to carry U.S. astronauts from launch pads in Russia.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NASA is discouraging people from coming to view the launch at Kennedy Space Center. Instead, NASA will stream the launch broadcast on its own website.
Launch Complex 39 is a rocket launch site at the John F. Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island in Florida, United States. The site and its collection of facilities were originally built as the Apollo program's "Moonport" and later modified for the Space Shuttle program.
SpaceX has leased the complex during the development of its rocket program. This will mark the first time SpaceX has launched a rocket with astronauts on board.