If their launch, now scheduled for 7:27 p.m. Sunday, is successful, it would be another coup for the space agency that has been on a roll recently, providing dashes of good news in a year that has seen very little.
A safe mission would be yet another balm for a nation obsessively doom-scrolling from one calamity to another, from the devastating pandemic, to social unrest and protests, to a tumultuous election that further cleaved an already fractious population — further cementing the fact that space has been a bright spot during 2020.
This month, NASA is celebrating 20 years of continuous habitation on the International Space Station. In July, it launched a rover called Perseverance to Mars that’s equipped with a small helicopter drone. The space agency also recently discovered reserves of water across the surface of the moon as well as the potential for life in Venus’s atmosphere. And in a daring, delicate mission it extracted a sample from an asteroid 200 million miles away that could contain answers to the origins of the universe.
But perhaps nothing symbolizes hope and promise quite like the astronaut corps, today a diverse and overachieving group that evokes a nostalgia for Americana as well as faith in the future. Last year, astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir performed NASA’s first all-female spacewalk. Now, the agency is looking to send astronauts back to the moon under its Artemis program, a mission NASA says would put the “next man and first woman” on the lunar surface.
Commercial companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are making strides, opening what many think is a new era in human spaceflight. That new paradigm got a boost this year when SpaceX successfully launched NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the space station in the agency’s first human spaceflight from United States since the space shuttle was retired in 2011.
In a divisive election year, SpaceX’s test flight in May elicited statements of support from then-candidate Joe Biden and President Trump, who was at the Kennedy Space Center for the launch. Trump’s campaign used the launch in an ad but then took it down after Hurley’s wife, former NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, said it was “disturbing that a video image of me and my son is being used in political propaganda without my knowledge or consent. That is wrong.”
Astronauts Behnken and Hurley “added their names to the long list of heroes who have changed the way we think about our universe and our place in it,” Biden said in a statement.
During a speech after the launch, Trump declared that “a new age of American ambition has now begun.” He added: “Those of us who saw the spectacular and unforgettable lift off this afternoon watched more than an act of history. We watched an act of heroism.”
Space has often helped unify the country. That was especially true during the 1960s, when the Apollo program offered a reprieve from the death toll in Vietnam.
“When you explore, two things happen,” said Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space exploration advocacy group. “You’re going make discoveries. You’re going to learn something, whether in your backyard or on orbit. … Everyone can see the great value of having a bunch of rocket scientists and space explorers in your society.”
Often, however, the epiphanies born from discovery are ephemeral flashes that burn hot and bright but are quickly forgotten, if not overlooked entirely, by much of the population. Apollo was an inspiration — until it wasn’t. After Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in 1969, interest waned, and no one has been back to the moon since 1972.
For the moment, though, there’s Crew-1, a roll call of NASA’s best: Mike Hopkins, the veteran commander who applied to be an astronaut four times before being selected in 2009. Since then, the Air Force colonel flew to the space station on a Russian Soyuz rocket.
Shannon Walker was selected to be an astronaut in 2004 after working closely with NASA, first as a robotics flight controller with avionics firm Rockwell Collins. In 1995, she joined NASA, working on the space station program. She launched to the station on the Soyuz in 2010.
Victor Glover is the rookie, who has never been to space before. A former Navy pilot who flew F/A-18 Hornets, he has four children.
The Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi, has flown to space twice, including on the first space shuttle mission after the 2003 Columbia disaster.
Given the challenges of 2020, the crew decided to name their spacecraft Resilience, a tribute to the teams that have worked despite the hardships on the mission, Hopkins said.
“I think all of us can agree that 2020 has certainly been a challenging year — global pandemic, economic hardships, civil unrest, isolation," he said. “And despite all of that, SpaceX and NASA have kept the production line open and finished this amazing vehicle that’s getting ready to go on its maiden flight to the International Space Station.”
The mission, which may be delayed because of weather, is different from the flight to the station Behnken and Hurley took in May. That was a test flight, designed to ensure the spacecraft was safe and operated as expected. While the mission was deemed a success, SpaceX did make some important changes to the capsule as a result of the flight, including reinforcing the heat shield, which protects the crew as the Dragon spacecraft reenters the atmosphere.
SpaceX also has swapped out two engines of the Falcon 9 rocket that would launch Saturday after detecting that a tiny valve vent was clogged with a lacquer used to prevent corrosion. With those changes, NASA and SpaceX said they were confident and ready to proceed with the Crew-1 flight.