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Right now the only way astronauts can get to the International Space Station is on Russian rockets. An American space vehicle will have its first test flight this weekend. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports this is a big moment for NASA and for SpaceX.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: SpaceX is a rocket company that was founded more than a decade ago by Elon Musk. He also started the electric car company Tesla. That partly explains why last year SpaceX launched a cherry red sports car into space.
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GREENFIELDBOYCE: SpaceX workers cheered and really went wild when images beamed back, along with a David Bowie soundtrack, showed that the convertible was being driven away from Earth by a space suited mannequin named Starman.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Starman's joyride marked the first successful flight of a big, new rocket. And now SpaceX is about to test another space vehicle. One of its rockets will launch a new capsule designed to carry people. Once again, a space suited mannequin will go along for the ride. SpaceX executive Hans Koenigsmann told reporters that this one will have all kinds of sensors to see how a real human would experience the trip.
HANS KOENIGSMANN: We measure the responses on the human body obviously and measure the environment. We want to make sure that everything is perfect.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: There's room for seven astronauts in the white bell-shaped capsule. It's very similar to a robotic SpaceX ship that's been ferrying NASA cargo back and forth to the space station for years. SpaceX ultimately wants to colonize Mars, so the first launch of its crew vehicle even with just a mannequin onboard is a milestone.
KOENIGSMANN: Human spaceflight is basically the core mission of SpaceX, so we are really excited to do this. There's nothing more important for us than this endeavor.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This is also important for NASA. Since the agency retired its space shuttles seven years ago, it's relied on Russia to take astronauts up. John Logsdon is a space historian with George Washington University. He says this SpaceX test will be the first step towards restoring this country's ability to put people in orbit.
JOHN LOGSDON: And because it is that first step, it has a transcendent significance beyond the event itself.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Assuming the capsule blasts off OK, it will travel to the station and dock there. The three astronauts living in the outpost will be able to open the hatch and go inside. That means this mission does involve people. And NASA and SpaceX have been super focused on safety.
BILL GERSTENMAIER: We're doing things that are really risky, that most normal human beings don't do.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA's Bill Gerstenmaier says that his agency and SpaceX have different cultures, and that's been a good thing as they've collaborated on creating a kind of private taxi service to space that NASA can use.
GERSTENMAIER: It's fun working with a new partner that approaches the problem in a slightly different way. They don't carry the same background that we did in NASA, and they don't approach the design exactly the same way we do. And that's cool. I mean, that's really neat.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA has already picked a pair of veteran space travelers to be the first to take off in this vehicle if this test and others go well. Kathy Lueders manages what NASA calls its Commercial Crew Program. She recently accompanied those two astronauts when they went out to a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center to see the SpaceX vehicle that's about to go up.
KATHY LUEDERS: And it really gave us a sense of getting ready and realizing that the next vehicle that we're going to be walking up to on the pad is going to be their crewed flight test.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That could happen as soon as July. And another company, Boeing, is also working towards the first flight of its new astronaut ride called the Starliner later this year. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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