From the excitement of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions to the highs and tragic lows of the space shuttle program to the technical brilliance of the landing of the rover Opportunity on Mars, the country’s exploration of space has always brought us together.
Against that backdrop, the scheduled launch of a Falcon 9 rocket in Florida Wednesday is a relatively modest affair. Still, it couldn’t come at a better time.
As we consider our uncertain, coronavirus-tinged future, we need something more to aspire to than the chance to aimlessly window-shop our way through a shopping mall, take in a film and a bucket of popcorn in an air-conditioned movie theater, or savor the smell of frying sausage outside a crowded Fenway Park.
To be sure, all those small pleasures will be savored upon their return. But we also need more substantial fare.
We can find it on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, where “SpaceX Demo-2,” as the mission is officially known, is set for launch at 4:33 p.m. The flight will mark the first time NASA has sent Americans into space since 2011. The United States now relies on Russia for trips to the International Space Station, paying about $86 million for a seat.
The mission is part of a public-private partnership between NASA and the Elon Musk-owned SpaceX. It will be the first real test of SpaceX’s gumdrop-shaped manned capsule, known as Crew Dragon.
If all goes as planned, astronauts and shuttle veterans Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will arrive safely at the space station, and SpaceX will become the first company to send a human into space.
The mission, of course, is not without risk. A Crew Dragon capsule was destroyed in a ground test explosion at Cape Canaveral in April 2019, and an unmanned Falcon rocket carrying supplies to the space station in 2015 exploded 139 seconds into flight. Both NASA and SpaceX, however, are confident in the latest model, which passed a pre-flight safety check last Friday.
“This is a moment when we can all look and be inspired,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
“We have a moment in time when we don’t just have to reflect on how difficult things are right now, we can talk about how bright things are going to be in the future.”
Come Wednesday afternoon, we may be stuck inside our homes, but our thoughts will be focused 1,300 miles away on two astronauts making history.