It’s going to be May: SpaceX, NASA gearing up for first astronaut launch from US soil since 2011

Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley to launch on SpaceX Crew Dragon mid- to late May, NASA says

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley at Kennedy Space Center on March 2, 2019 after the sucessful first launch of the Crew Dragon. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – NASA announced Wednesday the U.S. space agency and its partner, SpaceX, are hoping to launch the first astronaut mission from U.S. soil since 2011 as early as mid-May.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, teams at SpaceX and NASA say they could be ready to launch NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley in the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule this spring. Most NASA employees were told to work from home Tuesday because of the virus.

“NASA and SpaceX are currently targeting no earlier than mid- to late May for launch,” the space agency said in a news release.

When it does happen, Behnken and Hurley will blast off on a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center’s historic launchpad 39A, the same pad where Apollo 11 launched to the moon more than 50 years ago.

White smoke dissipating above Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was the only indication Wednesday afternoon that SpaceX was testing its astronaut capsule Crew Dragon ahead of a critical launch abort test.

The two astronauts will dock at the International Space Station, although it’s unclear how long they will stay. The first crewed flight is still considered a test flight, meaning it would be a quick turnaround for the spacemen. After months of delays, it’s possible their test flight could turn into a longer mission.

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Due to the delays, NASA is in negotiations with Russia to buy another seat for an American astronaut. After the space shuttle program ended, NASA began paying the Russian space agency to launch its astronauts to the ISS and bring them back to Earth. In 2014, NASA selected SpaceX and Boeing to develop spacecraft to again launch American’s from the Space Coast as part of the Commercial Crew Program.

Both companies have faced delays and very public set backs, including the recent ill-fated Boeing Starliner spacecraft’s first uncrewed spaceflight and the explosion of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule at Cape Canaveral during a test.

Elon Musk’s company successfully launched Crew Dragon -- without astronauts -- to the ISS last year and brought it home with an Atlantic Ocean splashdown. The next time it launches, two astronauts will be along for the ride.

As NASA and Boeing work through the weekend to uncover what exactly went wrong with the Starliner thrusters, CBS News Space Analyst Bill Harwood is reacting to what happened.