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Before historic SpaceX launch, NASA talks future of commercializing low-Earth orbit

NASA administrators held a mission briefing before the historic Crew Dragon launch carrying two American astronauts.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — American astronauts are set to once again launch to space on American rockets from American soil. This time, NASA is a customer on the mission.

NASA held a mission briefing Tuesday morning ahead of Wednesday's tentative launch of the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission carrying astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. Those at the briefing (social distancing) at Kennedy Space Center include Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Deputy Administrator James Morhard, KSC Director Bob Cabana and astronauts Nicole Mann and Kjell Lindgren.

The last crewed mission from American soil was in 2011 when Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off from Florida's east coast. For the last nine years, NASA has bought seats for astronauts on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which launch from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. 

While Wednesday's launch is historic because it's the first step in bringing crewed launches back to American soil, Bridenstine also called it a "unique moment" to see the country "do something stunning again" in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Bridenstine also said the Crew Dragon mission will transform how the United States -- and eventually the world -- will do spaceflight in general.

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"We're commercializing low-Earth orbit," Bridenstine said. "Soon we will have a commercial space station."

Essentially, this is not a NASA mission -- it's a SpaceX one and NASA is its customer. The crew is NASA, but the rocket and the spacecraft are built, owned and operated by SpaceX.

Credit: AP
In a photo provided by SpaceX, SpaceX's Dragon crew capsule sits atop a Falcon 9 rocket Sunday morning, May 24, 2020, at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

"This is the first time a commercial company has done this," Morhard said. "We're looking to be a customer to SpaceX and other companies in the future...creating and expanding the economy in low-Earth orbit."

Bridenstine said space is a nearly $400 billion market, and astronauts Hurley and Behnken "are the final step in proving the success of the public-private business model" for space exploration.

Since it will be a SpaceX launch, it will be a SpaceX launch director who will give the final "go" to launch the Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Crew Dragon capsule. However, since NASA is the customer, the agency's management team will still watch closely in any event assistance or intervention is needed. 

"(But) I don't see that being necessary," Bridenstine said. "Our goal is to have SpaceX to be able to do missions without NASA. We want them to get customers that aren't us."

One of the biggest questions about Wednesday's launch is if it will actually get to happen. As of Tuesday morning, weather conditions improved to 60 percent "go" for launch. NASA, SpaceX and the 45th Space Wing are still monitoring the chances for inclement weather that could postpone the launch to Saturday.

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Bridenstine and Morhard also talked about continuing the agency's relationship with Russia's Roscosmos program, the long-awaited return of the NASA "worm" logo and answered a question about what the astronauts will eat for breakfast before the launch.

"My generation grew up with the worm (logo)," Bridenstine said. "This is NASA, this nostalgic for me. On this rocket, we have both...the 'meatball' and the 'worm.'"

As for pre-launch meals, Cabana said, "astronauts get anything they want for breakfast."

Credit: NASA/SpaceX

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