SpaceX is about to launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station on its Crew Dragon spaceship. Here's what to expect.

·16 min read
nasa astronauts bob behnken doug hurley spacex spacesuits crew dragon spaceship seats training demo2 demo 2 49720388058_23f03d8a6d_o
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley (front) participate in a SpaceX flight simulation of the planned Demo-2 test-flight mission in March 2020.

SpaceX via NASA

  • Eighteen years after Elon Musk founded SpaceX, the rocket company is preparing to launch its first people.

  • On Wednesday, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley boarded SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship in preparation to ride it to space atop a Falcon 9 rocket. 

  • The Demo-2 test mission for NASA is set to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:33 p.m. ET, and take about nine minutes to reach orbit.

  • Behnken and Hurley will fly to the International Space Station, where they will stay for about 3 months. Then they'll climb back inside the space capsule, return to Earth, and parachute into the Atlantic Ocean.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Since Elon Musk formed SpaceX in 2002, the company has turned the spaceflight industry upside-down with dozens of reusable rocket launches. 

For all its achievements, though, SpaceX has never flown a person into space.

That's about to change. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have put on their spacesuits, climbed aboard SpaceX's new Crew Dragon spaceship, and are preparing to ride the gumdrop-shaped vehicle into orbit atop a 23-story Falcon 9 rocket.

Liftoff is scheduled for 4:33 p.m. ET on Wednesday.

The astronauts' Demo-2 mission will be SpaceX's first human-rated flight and its second full test flight for NASA's Commercial Crew Program. The goal of the roughly $8 billion effort is to restore American access to space with commercial partners. SpaceX is poised to achieve the feat before its competitor, Boeing. NASA retired all of its space shuttles in July 2011, so has been relying on Russian spacecraft to shuttle astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station since then.

If Behnken and Hurley arrive successfully at the space station, they may stay for more than 100 days.

Here's every notable step of SpaceX's first crewed flight, which will be the company's most critical, dangerous, and historic mission to date.

Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are poised to make spaceflight history on Wednesday, both for the US and SpaceX.

nasa astronauts doug hurley bob behnken spacex crew dragon spacesuits flight suits helmets commercial crew program ccp 2x1
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (left) and Bob Behnken (right), who are scheduled to be the first people that SpaceX launches into orbit.

SpaceX

At 4:33 p.m. ET, the two NASA astronauts are scheduled to ride SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship into orbit — a test flight called Demo-2 — thereby becoming SpaceX's first human passengers.

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An illustration of SpaceX's Crew Dragon space capsule for NASA astronauts launching toward space on a Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX

Source: Business Insider

Behnken and Hurley's mission began in earnest on May 13: when the astronauts checked into quarantine at a living facility on the grounds of Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

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NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley (right) sit inside SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship.

NASA

Although NASA and SpaceX are moving forward with Demo-2 during the coronavirus pandemic, quarantines are standard: They help prevent crew members from getting sick while orbiting 250 miles away from the nearest hospital.

NASA gave Demo-2 a flight-readiness review over the weekend. The positive results kicked off a series of final preparations for launch.

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SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship being mated to its trunk on April 30, 2020, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The spacecraft was built for NASA's Demo-2 test mission.

SpaceX via NASA

Source: Spaceflight Now

A few days before liftoff, SpaceX rolled the stacked Crew Dragon spaceship and Falcon 9 rocket out of its hangar at Launch Complex 39A.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company’s Crew Dragon attached, rolls out of the company’s hangar at NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A on January 3, 2019.

SpaceX

Then it lifted the rocket into a vertical position on the launchpad.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard is seen as it is raised into a vertical position on the launch pad at Launch Complex 39A, February 28, 2019 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Joel Kowsky/NASA

After the rocket was clamped down and checked out, SpaceX conducted a static fire test.

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A photo of the bottom of a Falcon 9 rocket, showing its nine Merlin engines.

SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)

During static-fire tests, SpaceX pumps super-chilled liquid oxygen and kerosene fuel into the rocket's tanks. Then they fire the rocket booster's nine Merlin engines for a few seconds to ensure there are no problems.

On Saturday, Behnken and Hurley drove out to the launchpad to conduct a full launch dress rehearsal with SpaceX to ensure everyone and everything was ready.

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Astronauts Doug Hurley (left) and Robert Behnken pose in front of a Tesla Model X at a SpaceX launch dress rehearsal at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on January 17, 2020.

Kim Shiflett/NASA via AP Photo

NASA got one more chance to call off the mission on May 25 with a launch-readiness review. It gave the green light.

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NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at a post-launch news conference for SpaceX on January 19, 2020.

Steve Nesius/Reuters

A few hours before launch, Behnken and Hurley were helped into their spacesuits. The garments are made to protect the astronauts from a sudden loss of air pressure and even fire.

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NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (foreground) and Bob Behnken don SpaceX spacesuits during a dress rehearsal in the Astronaut Crew Quarters at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 17, 2020

NASA/Kim Shiflett

Before climbing into a Tesla that would drive them to the launch pad, Behnken and Hurley said goodbye to their families.

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Hurley and Behnken say goodbye to their families and give distant "hugs," May 27, 2020.

NASA TV

Speaking on NASA live TV just two hours before the scheduled liftoff, Musk said he felt responsible for the astronauts' lives.

"I felt it most strongly when I saw their families just before coming here," Musk said, pausing for a few seconds and appearing to choke up before continuing. "I said, 'We've done everything we can to make sure your dads come back ok.'"

Then they rode out to the launch pad and ascended an elevator to the top.

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spacex nasa demo-2 doug hurley bob behnken crew dragon launch astronauts

NASA via Youtube

They walked down an access arm to their spaceship.

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NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley, wearing SpaceX spacesuits, walk through the Crew Access Arm connecting the launch tower to the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft during a dress rehearsal at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on January 17, 2020.

SpaceX

The arm connected to a rectangular hatch on the side of the spacecraft, where Behnken and Hurley wormed their way through...

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Behnken prepares to board the Crew Dragon through its door hatch, May 27, 2020.

NASA via Youtube

... And crawled into the white cabin of the Crew Dragon spaceship.

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Behnken and Hurley are strapped into their seats on the Crew Dragon, May 27, 2020.

NASA via Youtube

SpaceX staff buckled the astronauts into their reclined seats, waved goodbye, and sealed the hatch.

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Behnken and Hurley are strapped into their seats on the Crew Dragon, May 27, 2020.

NASA via Youtube

Next came a thorough checklist of items before launch.

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NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (foreground) and Doug Hurley (background) train inside SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship.

SpaceX

About 45 minutes before liftoff, the astronauts armed a launch escape system — just in case anything goes wrong during a roughly half-hour fueling procedure called "load and go."

Elon Musk
Elon Musk.

Steve Nesius/Reuters

Source: Space News

SpaceX showed its escape system works in January by launching a Crew Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket. During the most strenuous part of the flight, the ship — empty save for a mannequin — safely flew away from the doomed rocket.

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SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship separating and speeding from an intentionally failed Falcon 9 rocket on January 19, 2020.

SpaceX via Twitter

Once the rocket is fully fueled and the clock counts down, Behnken and Hurley will wait through some of the longest seconds of their lives.

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SpaceX's astronaut spacesuit inside a Crew Dragon capsule.

Elon Musk/SpaceX; Instagram

The force of the launch will press them into their seats as the Falcon 9 spends the next nine minutes accelerating Crew Dragon to 17,500 mph. That's about 10 times as fast as a bullet, and the speed required to orbit Earth at the space station's altitude.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 10:30 a.m. EST on Jan. 19, 2020, carrying the Crew Dragon spacecraft on the company’s uncrewed In-Flight Abort Test.

Tony Gray/SpaceX

The crew's journey to space will look something like this. Once the Falcon 9 rocket booster expends most of its fuel, it will detach from the upper stage and attempt to land on a boat at sea to fly another day.

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A diagram showing the planned launch sequence of SpaceX's Demo-2 mission with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

SpaceX via NASA TV

If there's a major problem with the rocket en route to orbit, the escape system is designed to automatically pull Crew Dragon away from danger.

crew dragon capsule falcon 9 rocket launch in flight abort test illustration spacex twitter EOfei8lUYAAjOZN
An illustration of SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship for firing its engines during an abort from a Falcon 9 rocket launch.

SpaceX via Twitter

Once Behnken and Hurley safely reach orbit, they'll climb out of their spacesuits, begin a series of tests, eat, and get some much-needed rest.

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An illustration of SpaceX's Crew Dragon, also known as Dragon 2 or Dragon V2, orbiting Earth. (The first Dragon was a cargo and supply ship not designed to carry people.)

Kennedy Space Center/SpaceX via Flickr

The phases for this stage of SpaceX's Demo-2 mission look like this.

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A diagram showing the planned flight sequence to the International Space Station of SpaceX's Demo-2 mission with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

SpaceX via NASA TV

After about 15 hours of flying above Earth, the space station will come into view.

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The International Space Station (ISS).

NASA

Crew Dragon will pull up to a spot about 220 meters (722 feet) in front of the ISS.

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SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft — the first of NASA's Commercial Crew vehicles — prepares to dock with the International Space Station on March 3, 2019.

NASA

At that point, the astronauts will try out their spaceship's all-new touchscreen docking controls — just in case there's a problem with the automated system.

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SpaceX's training simulator for docking Crew Dragon with the International Space Station.

SpaceX vis YouTube

Once they show the new interface works, Crew Dragon's computer will resume control, propel the spaceship to its port, and berth it to the ISS.

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An artist's illustration shows the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft docking to the International Space Station.

SpaceX via NASA

The three-person crew of Expedition 63, commanded by fellow NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, will be waiting to greet Behnken and Hurley once the hatches open.

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Expedition 63 crew members Chris Cassidy, Anatoly Ivanishin, and Ivan Vagner.

NASA

Behnken and Hurley will stay with their new space-station colleagues for up to 110 days. Future SpaceX crews may linger for more than six months.

NASA International Space Station
The Aurora Australis seen from the International Space Station in September 2011.

NASA

Before Behnken and Hurley leave the ISS, they'll grab a historic memento: an American flag flown on the first space shuttle mission and left by the crew of NASA's final space shuttle flight, of which Hurley was a member.

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The crews of STS-135 and Expedition 28 hold up a US flag that flew on the first space shuttle mission, STS-1, returned to Earth, and flew again on STS-135. The flag was left on the International Space Station for the next crewed launch from American soil.

NASA

"I understand it's going to be sort of like a capture the flag moment here for commercial spaceflight. So good luck to whoever grabs that flag," Barack Obama said in 2011.

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President Barack Obama talks with the crews of the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station during a phone call in the Oval Office on July 15, 2011.

Pete Souza/White House

Source: NASA via YouTube

Back inside Crew Dragon and suited up, Behnken and Hurley will bid the space station farewell.

dragon v2 iss decouple
dragon v2 iss decouple

SpaceX

Their return to Earth is supposed to follow a timeline like this.

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A diagram showing the planned departure and landing sequence from International Space Station of SpaceX's Demo-2 mission with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

SpaceX via NASA TV

Crew Dragon will fly away from the ISS until it's in position to shed its tube-like trunk, a lower section outfitted with fuel tanks, solar panels, and other hardware the astronauts will no longer need.

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An illustration of SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship shedding its trunk before returning to Earth.

SpaceX via YouTube

This will expose the capsule's heat shield, which will plow through Earth's atmosphere, generate superheated plasma, and help bleed off the energy of moving at dozens of times the speed of sound.

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An illustration of SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship returning to Earth with a blaze of plasma ahead of its heat shield.

SpaceX via YouTube

Minutes later, Crew Dragon will deploy a series of parachutes to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Cape Canaveral.

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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is guided by four parachutes as it splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean about 200 miles off Florida’s east coast on March 8, 2019, after returning from the International Space Station on the Demo-1 mission.

Cory Huston/NASA

SpaceX's GO Searcher ship will be at the ready with a helicopter in case Behnken or Hurley need to be rapidly evacuated to land for medical attention.

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Teams from NASA and SpaceX practice procedures for medical emergency evacuation onboard the GO Searcher ship, Friday, August 15, 2019 in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Bill Ingalls/NASA

If all goes well, Demo-2 will set the stage for SpaceX's first operational mission with NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins, who may fly to the ISS before the end of the year.

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NASA astronauts Victor Glover (left) and Mike Hopkins (right). They will be the second to fly SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule.

NASA

A successful Demo-2 mission would also tee up a bright future for SpaceX, NASA, and commercial spaceflight in general.

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SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship approaches the International Space Station on March 3, 2019.

NASA

The stakes are immense for NASA and SpaceX. In July 2011, NASA flew its last space shuttle mission, effectively ending crewed spaceflight from American soil.

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Space shuttle Atlantis at Launchpad 39A in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Dave Mosher

Since then, the only approved ride for NASA astronauts to and from space has been Russia's Soyuz launch system.

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The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on October 11, 2018. The rocket failed in mid-flight, but an escape system saved the crew.

Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

Source: Business Insider

Soyuz is necessary to get astronauts to and from the International Space Station, which not only represents a $100 billion US investment, but is a football-field-size laboratory where NASA performs research for future crewed missions to the moon and Mars.

international space station
The International Space Station.

NASA

Sources: Business Insider (1, 2)

But Russia has made use of its monopoly on spaceflight. When NASA still launched space shuttles, a round-trip ticket on Soyuz cost about $20 million. In May, NASA agreed to pay Russia more than $90 million per Soyuz seat.

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Astronauts and a cosmonaut buckled into a cramped Soyuz descent module make for a very tight fit.

ESA/NASA

Sources: Business Insider, Irene Klotz/Aviation Week

NASA has worked with SpaceX, Boeing, and others since 2012 to build all-new American spaceships through the Commercial Crew Program.

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A view of SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The spacecraft is part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program to launch astronauts into orbit from US soil.

SpaceX/Twitter

SpaceX was first to jump through all of NASA's hoops to convince the agency it's ready to fly astronauts.

nasa administrator jim bridenstine spacex ceo founder elon musk abort test mission firing room kennedy space center january 19 2020 demo 2 demo2 mission commercial crew program ccp KSC 20200119 PH KLS01_0182 orig
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (left) and SpaceX founder Elon Musk on January 19, 2020.

Kim Shiflett/NASA

On August 3, 2018, NASA announced it had selected Hurley and Behnken to fly SpaceX's Demo-2 mission.

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NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (left) and Bob Behnken during a 2018 Commercial Crew Program crew unveiling.

David J. Phillip/AP

Source: Business Insider

Both are engineers who've flown on space shuttle missions to the space station. Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's president and COO, has described the men as "badass" test pilots, astronauts, and dads.

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NASA astronaut Robert "Bob" Behnken aboard the International Space Station in February 2010.

NASA

Source: Business Insider

The duo, along with other astronauts, have worked closely with SpaceX to provide critical feedback about Crew Dragon for years.

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NASA astronaut Robert "Bob" Behnken evaluates SpaceX's Crew Dragon mock-up.

SpaceX

Source: Business Insider

They've also met with Musk many times to discuss ideas for Crew Dragon's improvement.

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SpaceX founder Elon Musk (left) speaks with NASA astronaut Bob Behnken on the fixed service structure of Launch Complex 39A on March 1, 2019.

Joel Kowsky/NASA

"On more than one occasion [Musk] has looked both Bob and I right in the eye and said, 'Hey, if there's anything you guys are not comfortable with or that you're seeing, please tell me and we'll fix it,'" Hurley said during a NASA briefing.

nasa administrator jim bridenstine spacex ceo founder elon musk commercial crew program ccp astronaut launch complex 39a tower crew dragon spaceship spacecraft marc 1 2019 NHQ201903010018_orig
From left: SpaceX founder Elon Musk, NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Doug Hurley, Bob Behnken, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, and astronaut Mike Hopkins speak inside the crew access arm with the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft visible behind them during a tour of Launch Complex 39A. The spacecraft launched the Demo-1 mission on March 1, 2019.

Joel Kowsky/NASA

Source: Business Insider

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