NASA, SpaceX bringing astronaut launches back to home turf

AP|
SpaceX running the show
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SpaceX running the show

For the first time in nearly a decade, U.S. astronauts are about to blast into orbit aboard an American rocket from American soil. And for the first time in the history of human spaceflight, a private company is running the show.

Elon Musk's SpaceX is the conductor and NASA the customer as businesses begin chauffeuring astronauts to the International Space Station.

The curtain rises next Wednesday with the scheduled liftoff of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule with two NASA astronauts, a test flight years in the making.

Reuters
Shift to private companies
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Shift to private companies

The cosmic-size shift to private companies allows NASA to zero in on deep space travel. The space agency is busting to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 under orders from the White House, a deadline looking increasingly unlikely even as three newly chosen commercial teams rush to develop lunar landers. Mars also beckons.

``We're building momentum toward a much more exciting future,'' said John Logsdon, founder of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute and a professor emeritus.

AFP
Launch pad drop off by Tesla X
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Launch pad drop off by Tesla X

In a touch of Musk showmanship _ he also runs the electric car company _ Astronauts Hurley and Behnken will ride to the launch pad in a gull-winged Tesla Model X, white with black trim just like the astronauts' spacesuits and the rocket itself.

The Dragon riders appreciate Musk's hands-on approach.

``On more than one occasion he has looked both Bob and I right in the eye and said, `Hey, if there's anything you guys are not comfortable with or that you're seeing, please tell me and we'll fix it.''' Hurley said.

AP
Keeping pandemic in mind
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Keeping pandemic in mind

While trumpeting the return of astronaut launches, NASA is urging spectators to stay away because of the pandemic. But beaches near Kennedy are now open, and the local sheriff is welcoming visitors even though inside the space center, the number of guests will be severely limited. Among the exceptions: both astronaut wives _ who have flown in space themselves _ and their young sons. Vice President Mike Pence, chairman of the National Space Council, is also going, and President Donald Trump told reporters Thursday that he's thinking of attending, too.

AP
"All the more impressive"
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"All the more impressive"

It will be just the fifth time NASA astronauts strap into a spanking new U.S. space system for liftoff _ following Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and shuttle. NASA owned and operated all those spacecraft, built by contractors to NASA's precise specifications. The commercial crew program, by contrast, calls for private businesses to handle and own it all, with input and oversight by NASA.

Only three countries have launched humans _ Russia, the U.S. and China in that order _ making SpaceX's attempt all the more impressive.

AP

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