CAPE CANAVERAL: Eight years after the last manned United States space flight, NASA and SpaceX are preparing to test a new space capsule for astronauts on Saturday - although for now the only occupant will be a dummy named Ripley.
Boeing is also in the race to end NASA's eight-year drought of launching USA astronauts on United States rockets from U.S. soil.
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SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule will make its debut when it launches atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center early on Saturday. The Falcon 9 will carry the cutting-edge SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule - Elon Musk's first-ever capsule capable of carrying astronauts into space.
The launch at NASA's Kennedy Space Center is scheduled for 2:48 a.m. EST, with a backup window available next Tuesday at 1:38 a.m. EST. "It´s different", said Mark Geyer, director of the Johnson Space Center, where United States astronauts are based. Later in the year, an uncrewed test launch is also expected for Boeing's crew craft as well and then crewed launches are expected of both the SpaceX and Boeing crafts.
NASA plans to livestream the SpaceX Crew Dragon launch as it happens through its NASA TV website; the live video can be accessed here and the network's broadcast schedule can be viewed here. Ripley is similar to Starman, which blasted off a year ago in the driver's seat of Musk's red Tesla convertible, on a test launch of the company's bigger Falcon Heavy rocket.
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"There are a lot of things you can prepare for on the ground, and through analysis and tests - and we do all that on the ground - but there's nothing like flying a mission to be able to really check out all the key systems ... to get ready for our next mission", Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA Commercial Crew Program, said last week during a news conference. Liftoff is set for 2:49 a.m. EST (0749 GMT) from Pad 39A - the exact same site used by NASA's Apollo moon shots and where, almost eight years ago, the agency launched its final space shuttle mission.
After a five-day stay, the spacecraft will undock next Friday, March 8, plunging back into the atmosphere for a parachute descent to splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean about 230 miles east of Cape Canaveral.
Just because SpaceX is first off the pad doesn't mean it will launch astronauts before Boeing.
"We are on the precipice of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011", NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a Twitter statement.
It will be the first commercial crew mission to visit the ISS.
Last year NASA announced the nine astronauts that will crew the test flights and first missions of the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft.