NASA ready to test new astronaut capsule

NASA and SpaceX counted down the hours Friday to the launch of a new astronaut capsule on a week-long trip to the International Space Station and back -- a key step towards resuming manned space flights from US soil after an eight-year break. 

NASA ready  to test new astronaut capsule

 This time around, the only occupant on board SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule will be a dummy named Ripley. 

 But if the test goes smoothly, NASA plans to put two astronauts aboard by the end of the year.

 The new capsule will blast off aboard a rocket built by SpaceX -- run by billionaire Elon Musk -- at 2:49 am Saturday (0749 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

 It is scheduled to reach the ISS by Sunday, with a return to Earth next Friday. 

 "This is a critically important event in American history," the head of the US space agency, Jim Bridenstine, told reporters, with the rocket and capsule visible behind him on the legendary launch pad where the Apollo missions to the Moon began. 

"We're on the precipice of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil again for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011."

 The excitement was palpable at Cape Canaveral, from the space-fan volunteers guiding media on site, to the tourists who came to watch the launch light up the overcast skies. 

 "It's been a long eight years," the Kennedy Space Center's director Bob Cabana, a former astronaut himself, said as SpaceX employees milled around the rocket.

 After the shuttle program was shuttered in July 2011 after a 30-year run, NASA began outsourcing the logistics of its space missions.

 It pays Russia to get its people up to the ISS orbiting research facility at a cost of $82 million ahead, for a round trip. 

 In 2014, the US space agency awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing for them to take over this task. 

But the program has suffered delays as safety requirements are much more stringent for manned flights than for unmanned missions to deploy satellites.

 "We're going to have more access to space at a better cost than at any point in human history," said Bridenstine, adding he was "100 per cent confident" that a manned flight would happen by year's end. 

Boeing also received a contract in 2014 to develop a space vessel, the Starliner. It will not be tested until April, in a mission similar to SpaceX's. 

 NASA did not want to rely on just one single vehicle, in case of accidents.

 "We're going to be a customer," Bridenstine told reporters. 

 Planning has been delayed by around three years, with the first manned SpaceX flight still pencilled in for July, though officials frequently refer to the end of 2019 as a more realistic deadline. 

 "We're going to take it day by day," Bridenstine said of the timeline. 

 "Right now, the date is July and that's what we're planning for, but if we change that date we'll make sure people know when it's the right time." 

 Doug Hurley, one of the two astronauts chosen for the future first manned flight, said: "We will be ready when SpaceX and NASA are ready for us to fly."

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