The SpaceX launch Saturday will mark the company’s biggest step so far toward replacing the space shuttle, as NASA looks to rely on Tesla (TSLA) CEO Elon Musk’s space startup and Boeing (BA) to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
At 2:49 a.m. ET Saturday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying an uncrewed capsule will blast off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA TV will start live-streaming at 2 a.m. ET.
“All systems and weather are go ahead of Crew Dragon’s first test flight tomorrow morning,” SpaceX tweeted Friday.
In case of delays due to weather or last-minute mechanical issues, the SpaceX launch has backup dates of March 5, 8 or 9.
If all goes according to schedule early Saturday, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule will dock with the ISS on Sunday at 5:55 a.m. ET, and then undock on March 8 to make its return back to earth.
Saturday’s SpaceX launch will be the first time an American commercially built rocket and crew capsule will travel to the ISS, according to NASA. (SpaceX has been launching unmanned cargo capsules to the ISS.)
If the upcoming SpaceX launch goes well, another one that will carry astronauts will take place this June.
That will mark the first time a U.S.-built rocket will send astronauts into orbit from American soil since the space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011. Currently, U.S. astronauts have to hitch rides on Russian rockets and Soyuz capsules.
The majority of the components on Saturday’s SpaceX launch, dubbed Demo-1, will be the same as those on the launch in June, or Demo-2, which will carry a crew of astronauts.
While Demo-1 will not have a crew, it will carry a dummy named DM-1 Ripley (a reference to the movie “Alien”), similar to the way last year’s Falcon Heavy launch carried the Starman dummy sitting in a Tesla Roadster. Cameras will also be aboard the Crew Dragon capsule.
Ripley is laden with sensors that will help NASA determine how human astronauts will respond to environmental changes in the Crew Dragon. The mission will also test life-support systems and other key functions.
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Boeing, SpaceX Launch Delays
In 2014, NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract, and SpaceX a $2.6 billion contract to develop spacecraft for missions to the ISS.
The unmanned Demo-1 SpaceX launch had an original launch date of December 2016, but several delays ensued. More recently, it was scheduled for January but was pushed back due to mechanical issues.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner uncrewed flight test has been pushed back to April to complete “necessary hardware testing, data verification, remaining NASA and provider reviews, as well as training of flight controllers and mission managers,” NASA said earlier this month.
If the April demonstration works out, Boeing plans to launch Starliner’s first crewed test flight in August.
NASA also conducted a review of both space taxi programs to meet the stringent regulations for manned space flight.
The investigation reportedly covers anything that could impact safety and was initiated over SpaceX and Elon Musk’s marijuana use.
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