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ORLANDO, Fla. — May 27 could mark only the ninth time in the history of the world that a crew of astronauts will take off from a brand new launch vehicle on a mission to space. The last time the United States did it was in 1981, 39 years ago.
The magnitude of the historical milestone and the pressure of the launch is weighing on the teams at SpaceX and NASA that are orchestrating the mission, a piloted test flight of SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule that plans to return to the U.S. the capability of flying astronauts to the International Space Station from American soil.
With only 26 days until the flight, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said during a news conference Friday that her "heart is sitting right here," pointing at her throat.
"And I think it's going to stay there," she said, "until we get (astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley) safely back from the ISS."
Hurley flew on the last mission of the space shuttle in 2011, a turning point in the nation's space program when Russia took over as the nation shuttling astronauts to space — for $80 million a seat.
Since then, NASA has been working with private companies to change that. The path to regular operational missions from the Space Coast will be clear if this month's flight is successful. It's scheduled for 4:32 p.m. from Kennedy Space Center's launch complex 39A, the same one that launched astronauts to the moon in 1969. A back-up launch window is available on May 30.
NASA's shift to build more commercial partnerships is what brought SpaceX and Boeing, the space agency's other partner on this program, called Commercial Crew, into the fold. It's a mission that for SpaceX is 18 years in the making. The company was founded by Elon Musk in 2002 with the goal of flying humans to space.
But it's going to play out in a way no one involved with the effort could have expected.
The coronavirus pandemic will significantly dull in-person celebrations across Florida. NASA moved ahead with the mission anyway because the agency deemed it an essential part of keeping the ISS piloted with an American crew member, something the agency was at risk of losing after multiple delays to the Commercial Crew program.
In the past, hundreds of thousands of people have descended on KSC, lining Playalinda Beach and State Road 401 to watch rockets cut through clouds, the roar of the engines echoing across the region.
Not this time.
"We are asking people not to travel to the Kennedy Space Center, and I will tell you that makes me sad to even say it," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Friday. "Boy, I wish we could make this into something really spectacular."
SpaceX and NASA still have a few tests to finalize before May 27, including flight and launch readiness reviews.
On Friday, Elon Musk's rocket company completed one of its outstanding milestones: The 27th test of the company's upgraded parachute design.
The crew, Behnken and Hurley, will go into formal quarantine on May 16 at Johnson Space Center, but they've already been in quarantine with each other and their families for some time because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We assume pandemic for all crews that are headed toward space station and try to keep them as safe as possible in that two weeks so that they don't take something to the space station," Behnken said. "(This time,) we just have been doing that longer."
On May 27, the two will head to the launch pad three hours before the mission takes off. Once there, Behnken said they'll have a chance to call family from a phone on the pad.
Once in space, Crew Dragon will spend some time in orbit before autonomously docking with the ISS, but Behnken and Hurley can also fly the vehicle manually if the need arises.
They'll spend at least a month on board. Steve Stich, deputy manager of the Commercial Crew program at Johnson, said the agency will determine just how long the mission will be once the astronauts arrive at the ISS.

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