- NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will begin their journey to the International Space Station this week.
- They'll be aboard a SpaceX rocket that is set to launch from Kennedy Space Center at 4:33 p.m. ET on Wednesday, weather permitting.
- It's the first time in nine years that American astronauts are departing from U.S. soil.
- The flight will help validate SpaceX’s crew transportation system, including the launch pad, rocket, spacecraft, and operational capabilities.
MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. – When the space shuttle Atlantis returned to earth in 2011, it marked the end of NASA’s legendary space shuttle program.
Astronaut Rex Walheim was onboard, as part of its four-person crew.
“I remember that night before we came home, our commander said, ‘This is it. This is the last time people will be eating dinner here and inside a space shuttle,’” said Walheim, who still works for NASA.
Now, a new era of space flight is set for launch. This week, two NASA astronauts are scheduled for a historic mission called Demo-2, involving a SpaceX rocket and Dragon capsule.
It’s the first time a private company is launching NASA astronauts to space and the first time in nine years that American astronauts are departing from U.S. soil.
Since the end of the space shuttle program, NASA astronauts have been hitching rides to the International Space Station onboard Russian Soyuz rockets launched from Kazakhstan.
“We really want to increase access to space and that's what this does,” Walheim said.
The astronauts undertaking this mission are Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley. Hurley's wife, Karen Nyberg, and Behnken's wife, Megan McArthur, are also astronauts who have flown in space.
“After five years of every day working on this program, I think Bob and I are only two of many people ready to get this thing airborne,” Hurley said.
Nine years ago, Hurley piloted Atlantis on that final space shuttle mission, STS-135, with Walheim onboard as a mission specialist.
“It’s neat to see him go out there and be able to be in space again,” Walheim said.
He knows exactly what awaits the two-person crew on launch day.
“About six seconds before launch, the main engines come up and that vehicle starts shaking, like it's coming apart,” Walheim said. “It's just amazing.”
It’s an experience he hopes will touch people watching in the U.S. and around the world during this difficult time.
“It's hard enough trying to send people in space – to try and send people in space during a pandemic, it makes it extra hard,” Walheim said. “It shows what we all need to do down here today. You know, we have such a big crisis going on. We'll get through it, but we'll get through it through cooperation.”
The Demo-2 mission is set to launch from Florida's Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday at 4:33 p.m. ET. If bad weather scrubs the launch, they will try again on Saturday. If that doesn’t work either, they’ll have another launch opportunity on Sunday.
The astronauts are expected to spend at least a month – and possibly as long as four months – on the International Space Station.