NASA set to launch astronauts again

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The two astronauts who will end a nine-year launch drought for NASA have arrived at Kennedy Space Center, exactly one week before their historic SpaceX flight to the International Space Station.

It will be the first time a private company, rather than a national government, sends astronauts into orbit.

NASA test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken flew to Florida from Houston aboard one of the space agency’s jets.

“It’s an incredible time for NASA and the space program, once again launching US crews from Florida and hopefully in just a week from about right now,” Hurley told reporters minutes after arriving.

Hurley was one of the four astronauts who arrived at Kennedy on July 4, 2011, for the final space shuttle flight, “so it’s incredibly humbling to be here to start out the next launch from the United States.”

“We feel it as an opportunity but also a responsibility for the American people, for the SpaceX team, for all of NASA,” Behnken added.

The two are scheduled to blast off next Wednesday afternoon atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, bound for the International Space Station. They’ll soar from the same pad where Atlantis closed out the shuttle program in 2011, the last home launch for NASA astronauts.

Since then, the only way to the space station for astronauts has been on Russian rockets launched from Kazakhstan.

Greeting the astronauts at Kennedy’s former shuttle landing strip were the centre’s director, former shuttle commander Robert Cabana, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

“You really are a bright light for all of America right now,” Bridenstine told them.

The welcoming committee was reduced drastically in size because of the coronavirus pandemic.

There were no handshakes for the astronauts, who did not wear masks but kept their distance at separate microphones. Both Cabana and Bridenstine wore masks except while addressing the crowd; so did the approximately 20 journalists standing more than six metres away.

During these tough times, Bridenstine said, “this is a moment when we can all look and be inspired as to what the future holds.”

NASA’s commercial crew program has been years in the making. Boeing, the competing company, isn’t expected to launch its first astronauts until next year.

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