ORLANDO, Fla., May 21 (UPI) -- The Crew Dragon space capsule made by Elon Musk's SpaceX faces a final big test when two astronauts get on board to fly to the International Space Station next week.
The United States hasn't had the capability to launch astronauts from U.S. soil since the last space shuttle mission in 2011. Since then, astronauts have flown to the space station only on Russian rockets launched from Kazakhstan.
A successful mission for Crew Dragon, which is to lift off atop a Falcon 9 rocket Wednesday, will restore that capability and continue the nation's dominance in space, along with making scientific advances from space exploration.
The flight, called Demo 2, is designed to certify the Crew Dragon for regular ferry service of astronauts to the space station.
"I think it's an outstanding flying machine," astronaut Doug Hurley said upon arrival at Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday. He will be flight commander for the mission. He and Bob Behnken, the other astronaut on the flight, each have two space shuttle missions on their résumés.
"It is definitely not the space shuttle, in many ways," Hurley said of the capsule. "It's much smaller, but it's a capsule. It's state of the art from a technology standpoint."
Hurley and Behnken had trained in simulators at SpaceX's headquarters for months. Among the completely new features of the spacecraft are a touchscreen control panel, rather than a traditional hand controller like the shuttles had.
The Falcon 9 is to lift off at 4:33 p.m. EDT from Kennedy Space Center's Complex 39A. That site, from which many previous Apollo and space shuttle missions were launched, is being leased by SpaceX.
"This will be the first time humans have ridden on the Falcon 9, even though it has flown many times," Hurley said in previous NASA interviews.
"And so just taking in that experience and the sounds, and all those things that we can relay to future crews, and how the vehicle reacts during the launch process -- is going to be something important to do, too."
NASA's urgent need is to stop relying on Russian Soyuz rockets to carry U.S. astronauts to the space station -- at a cost of more than $70 million per seat.
SpaceX is over two years behind schedule for the launch. NASA awarded two finalist contracts in 2014 to certify new spacecraft to carry people by 2017 -- Boeing got $4.2 billion for its Starliner capsule and SpaceX got $2.6 billion for Crew Dragon.
A sobering report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office in June noted that both programs were making progress, but also said continued delays create "continued uncertainty about when either contractor will be certified to begin conducting operational missions to the ISS."
SpaceX said Crew Dragon is capable of carrying up to seven passengers to and from Earth orbit, and beyond. The capsule is about 13 feet around and 26.7 feet high, and can carry 13,228 pounds at launch. Flight suits include a 3D-printed helmet and touchscreen-compatible gloves.
To prepare for this mission, SpaceX blew up a rocket in January in a final uncrewed test launch of the capsule, proving it could carry astronauts to safety in a launch emergency.
At the time, Musk said sensors aboard the capsule showed astronauts would have experienced a maximum of 3.5 times Earth's gravity. That compares to nearly seven Gs endured by people on a Russian Soyuz capsule that aborted in October 2018.
SpaceX already has sent uncrewed cargo Dragons on resupply missions to the space station several times.
SpaceX, NASA prepare to return astronauts to space from U.S. soil
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (L) and Bob Behnken stand near Launch Pad 39A during a dress rehearsal ahead of the SpaceX uncrewed In-Flight Abort Test at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on January 17. In the background, the company's Falcon 9 rocket is topped by the Crew Dragon spacecraft. The flight test will demonstrate the spacecraft's escape capabilities in preparation for crewed flights to the International Space Station. Photo by Kim Shiflett/NASA | License Photo
Hurley (R) and Behnken don SpaceX spacesuits in the astronaut crew quarters during a dress rehearsal ahead of the company's uncrewed in-flight abort test. Photo by Kim Shiflett/NASA | License Photo
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosts the Crew Dragon spacecraft for NASA on a launch abort test from Complex 39A at Kennedy on January 19. SpaceX conducted the test as a final measure to assure safety for future crewed missions to the International Space Station. Photo by Joe Marino-Bill Cantrell/UPI | License Photo
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (L) and SpaceX chief Elon Musk converse at Kennedy Space Center's launch control center while awaiting liftoff of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft on the uncrewed in-flight abort test on January 19. Photo by Kim Shiflett/NASA | License Photo
The test, which did not have NASA astronauts aboard, demonstrated Crew Dragon's ability to reliably carry crew to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency on ascent. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule completes acoustic testing in Florida ahead of its crewed flight to and from the ISS later this year. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
Hurley (R) and Behnken participate in SpaceX's flight simulator. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
SpaceX teams executed a full simulation of launch and docking of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, with Hurley (R) and Behnken participating in SpaceX's flight simulator on March 19 and 20. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft undergoes final processing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
Behnken (L) and Hurley successfully completed a fully integrated test of Crew Dragon's critical flight hardware at a SpaceX processing facility on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 30. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
\NASA and SpaceX completed an end-to-end demonstration of the teams' ability to safely evacuate crew members from the fixed service structure during an emergency situation at Launch Complex 39A on April 3. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
Hurley examines the critical flight hardware during the test on March 30. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft that will be used for the Crew-1 mission for NASA's Commercial Crew Program undergoes processing inside the clean room at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. Photo courtesy of SpaceX | License Photo
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft arrives at Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, transported from the company's processing facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 15. Photo by Kim Shiflett/NASA | License Photo