SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Later today, NASA and the commercial company SpaceX is scheduled to do something that hasn't been done in nearly a decade - launch astronauts to the International Space Station aboard an American rocket. We're joined now by NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, thanks so much for being with us.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.
SIMON: Remind us. I happened to be there for the last time that Americans launched into orbit from U.S. soil.
BRUMFIEL: Right. Well, if you were there, then you remember it was the space shuttle Atlantis, and that was way back in 2011 now, almost a decade ago. The shuttle was retired that year. And since then, American astronauts have been getting to space, but they've been doing it on Russian rockets. They've been launching from Kazakhstan on Soyuz rockets. So this is going to be a big change.
SIMON: And this launch is different than the shuttle, isn't it?
BRUMFIEL: Yeah. It looks completely different. So this is a spacecraft called Dragon. Unlike the shuttle, it's really small. It's got sort of this white, shiny exterior, and on the interior, there's touchscreen controls and stuff. But it actually also looks kind of like a throwback. It's like this bell-shaped capsule kind of like the Apollo era. And it sits way up on top of the rocket rather than being strapped to the side the way the shuttle was. And this really marks a return to that older kind of safer way to get to space. The shuttle was big, and it was below its fuel tanks, which could cause the wings to get damaged. And it used both solid and liquid-fueled rockets. It was this really complicated design, and this is hopefully simpler and safer.
SIMON: NASA has to keep a close eye on the weather today, doesn't it?
BRUMFIEL: Yeah. I mean, Florida weather, it's always a problem for NASA. They were all set to go actually on Wednesday. The astronauts were strapped in, and they waited through thunderstorms, even a tornado warning. But in the end, they had to stand down because the weather looked just a little too dangerous. And it's not just the weather at the launch site. If anything goes wrong on the way up, the astronaut capsule will actually eject from the top of the rocket and land in the ocean. So they have to have good conditions in the Atlantic along most of the flight path so that they can be rescued safely. Mother Nature's actually going to be the deciding factor on whether we see a launch later today.
SIMON: Geoff, has the pandemic changed anything about this trip?
BRUMFIEL: Well, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have been in quarantine, but that's not unusual. Astronauts always go into quarantine a few weeks before a space launch. But there are some really big differences on the ground. It was really clear how things had changed during the run-up to that aborted launch on Wednesday. The ground crew were all wearing masks. Even Elon Musk, the billionaire who started SpaceX, he's been really skeptical of the whole COVID-19 pandemic, but he was wearing a mask. And there's other changes, too. They're using multiple control rooms to spread out the ground crews. They're making sure in mission control everyone's 10 feet apart. In short, they're trying to make this a safe workplace on Earth.
SIMON: Geoff, how can people see the launch?
BRUMFIEL: Well, NASA is asking people to stay away. They don't want crowds gathering because they're obviously worried about the possibility the coronavirus could spread. But the whole thing is going to be streamed online through NASA's website and on YouTube. So you can watch there. The launch is scheduled to happen at 3:22 p.m. on the dot today. And if it doesn't happen today because of weather, they'll try again tomorrow.
SIMON: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel, thanks so much.
BRUMFIEL: Thank you, Scott.
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