Two astronauts flew to Florida on Wednesday to begin final preparations for, the first piloted flight to orbit from U.S. soil since the space shuttle's retirement nearly nine years ago.
Douglas Hurley, the pilot of that final shuttle mission, and spacewalk veteran Robert Behnken landed at the Kennedy Space Center's 3-mile-long shuttle runway aboard a NASA jet a few minutes before 4 p.m. EDT. Their arrival came on the eve of a NASA-SpaceX flight readiness review to clear the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon spacecraft for launch May 27.
"It's just an incredible honor to be back here at Kennedy Space Center," Hurley told a small group of reporters at the runway, all of them wearing masks and observing NASA-required social distancing protocols.
It was the first time a crew had flown to the spaceport for launch since Hurley and three crewmates flew in on July 4, 2011, for the final shuttle flight.
"This is a very, very special place to us," he said Wednesday. "It's almost like a home away from home. So it's great to be back. It's an incredible time for NASA, the space program, once again launching U.S. crews from Florida and, hopefully, just a week from about right now."
As the flight readiness review gets underway, SpaceX plans to mount the Falcon 9 atop pad 39A on Thursday and to test fire the rocket's nine first stage engines Friday to verify the booster's readiness for flight.
Hurley and Behnken then plan to don their SpaceX pressure suits Saturday, ride to the pad in a Tesla SUV and strap into their Crew Dragon capsule for a dress-rehearsal countdown that will set the stage for blast off next Wednesday at 4:33 p.m.
"We'll get a chance to climb into the Dragon capsule, strap in and walk through the pre-launch timeline ... just to polish the team one more time prior to the launch," said Behnken. "And then, of course, the big show on the 27th."
Hurley took a moment to praise "the incredible men and women of SpaceX ... that have put so many thousands of hours of work into this rocket and into this spacecraft. We're looking forward to getting up close and personal with the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon here in just a few days."
In an interview with CBS News, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said "right now, we don't see anything that is a showstopper."
"Tomorrow, we're going to do a flight readiness review," he said. "We're going to go over every subsystem, every system, not only of the the rocket, but also the upper stage, the crew capsule and the space station itself.
"And if all of the engineers give us a signal that they are go, then there will be nothing stopping us at that point other than, you know, checks of systems on the pad."
And, of course, the Florida weather.
Half a world away and two-and-a-half hours earlier, the Japanese space agency got the busy week off to a spectacular start by launching an H2-B rocket carrying an unpiloted HTV cargo ship loaded with 6.8 tons of supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station.
Along with science gear and crew supplies, the cargo includes a final set of six lithium-ion replacement batteries for the lab's solar power system.
Behnken has trained to help station commander Chris Cassidy, the lone American currently aboard the lab, install the new batteries, but it's not yet clear when the work might be scheduled.
The 186-foot-tall H2-B rocket thundered to life at 1:31 p.m. (2:31 a.m. Thursday local time), lighting up the night sky for miles around as it shot away from the picturesque Tanegashima launch site in southern Japan. The climb to space went smoothly, and 15 minutes later, the HTV cargo ship was released in orbit to fly on its own.
The HTV "Kounotori," or "white stork," cargo ship is the ninth unpiloted freighter supplied by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency — JAXA — as part of its participation in the space station program. If all goes well, the spacecraft will catch up with the station next Monday and be pulled in for berthing by the lab's robot arm.
The HTV-9 spacecraft was packed with 4.7 tons of equipment and supplies in a pressurized compartment accessible by the station crew. The six lithium-ion solar array batteries were carried aloft in an unpressurized cargo bay. The batteries and the pallet carrying them tip the scales at 2.1 tons.
Most of the space station's electrical power is generated by four huge sets of rotating solar arrays, two on the starboard, or right side of the lab's power truss, and two on the left, or port side.
As originally designed, 48 nickel-hydrogen batteries, 12 per solar wing, are used to deliver power when the station is in Earth's shadow. They are recharged when the arrays are back in sunlight. NASA is in the process of replacing all 48 nickel-hydrogen batteries with 24 more powerful lithium-ion power packs.
Eighteen of the new batteries were brought up, six at a time, aboard HTV cargo ships launched in 2016, 2018 and 2019. Two spacewalks were required to install each set of six batteries. The final set launched Wednesday will be installed at the base of the station's right-side outboard set of solar panels, known as the starboard-6, or S6, power segment.
Wednesday's launch marked the ninth and final flight of an H-2B rocket, the most powerful launcher in the Japanese inventory, as JAXA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries develop a new booster known as the H3. It also marked the ninth and final flight of an HTV cargo ship. JAXA is developing a new version, the HTV-X, that is expected to fly in the 2022 timeframe.