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Sometimes it helps to look up beyond this world. And today is a good day to do that because history could happen in space travel. This afternoon, two NASA astronauts are scheduled to blast off on the test flight of a new spaceship, a capsule made by SpaceX. It has been almost 40 years since the space agency has sent a crew up in a brand-new vehicle. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports what's the same this time around and what's different.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The last time NASA astronauts flew on a new spaceship was April 12, 1981. Crowds gathered that morning in Florida. For a country used to the bell-shaped capsules of the Apollo moon missions, the black-and-white shuttle looked strange, like an airplane.
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HUGH HARRIS: Seven, six, five, four - we've gone for main engine start. We have main engine start.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The launch was blindingly bright and surprisingly fast. Wayne Hale watched on TV in his bedroom, where he'd been trying to catch a few hours of sleep after working a pre-launch shift at Houston's Mission Control.
WAYNE HALE: People in my generation grew up with, like, the Apollo missions. And the Saturn 5 just looked like it took forever to get clear of the tower. You know, it's very slow. And the shuttle just, with those solid rocket motors, just, pow. They were out of town.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hale went on to be a flight director for dozens of shuttle missions and head of the space shuttle program. He retired from NASA and now consults for commercial space companies. For him, the upcoming launch of a SpaceX capsule is like deja vu.
HALE: The substantially similar thing is that we've been waiting too long without being able to send, you know, Americans into orbit from America.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Almost six years went by between the end of Apollo and the first space shuttle launch.
HALE: And I remember a lot of talk about, well, we should never be in the position as a nation again not being able to send astronauts into space for this long.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This time, NASA has been waiting even longer - almost nine years. Since the shuttle stopped flying in 2011, the U.S. has relied on Russian rockets to get its astronauts to the International Space Station. Meanwhile, NASA has been partnering with companies like SpaceX and Boeing to help them build their own space vehicles. One of them, the SpaceX Dragon, is finally ready to blast off with people onboard.
Some in the space industry think that this kind of commercial space taxi will transform space travel because folks outside of NASA will be able to fly on them, too, opening up space as a destination. Here again, history is repeating itself. Hale says the reusable space shuttle was supposed to revolutionize space travel in a similar way.
HALE: We were going to take Walter Cronkite. My goodness, we're going to have journalists in space. We're going to take entertainers. This is going to really date me - we're going to take John Denver into space.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: All of that ended with the Challenger disaster. The shuttle was more dangerous and more expensive than originally planned. It flew far less often than NASA had hoped. The safety of SpaceX's capsule and rocket is better understood. There's been a flight test with no people onboard. That was not true of the space shuttle.
NASA had never launched anything like it before sending it up with two astronauts, veteran John Young and rookie Robert Crippen. Now, from the very same launch pad, the SpaceX vehicle will carry up another pair of astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. Hurley says he recently saw Crippen at an event in Texas. And they talked about flying a spaceship for the very first time.
DOUGLAS HURLEY: And I think one thing that really registered with me with what Bob Crippen said was, you know, we were so focused on flying the mission, flying the vehicle and executing and not making a mistake.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's the kind of hyper-focus Hurley has to have even in the midst of a pandemic that has NASA begging people not to gather in crowds to watch, like they've done for past launches. Hurley has flown on the space shuttle himself. In fact, he was on its last mission. The shuttle had a cockpit crammed full of switches and dials. But the SpaceX capsule is controlled with a sleek touchscreen.
HURLEY: Growing up as a pilot, my whole career, having a certain way to control a vehicle, this is certainly different.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And when he and Behnken return to Earth, they'll splash down in the ocean rather than coasting to a stop on a landing strip. Still, he'll be carrying some familiar cargo, an American flag. It flew on the first shuttle mission and the last. It's been hung up on the space station for years just waiting for a crew to launch from the U.S. and bring it back home.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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