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NASA Is Set To Launch Astronauts Aboard A SpaceX Spacecraft

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It has been nine years since the space shuttle shot into orbit for the final time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE DILLER: ...Two, one, zero, and liftoff - the final liftoff of Atlantis. On the shoulders of the space shuttle, America will continue the dream.

KELLY: That day marked the last that NASA astronauts launched into orbit from U.S. soil. Since then, NASA has had to rely on the Russians to get to space. That is due to change tomorrow. If the weather cooperates, two U.S. astronauts will lift off from Kennedy Space Center. They will be riding a spacecraft built not by NASA, though, but built and owned by a private company, SpaceX.

Phil McAlister is director of commercial spaceflight at NASA. He's on the line now from Kennedy. Hi, there. Welcome.

PHIL MCALISTER: Thank you.

KELLY: Let's start with the symbolism and significance of what we're hoping will happen tomorrow. You all are using the same launch pad, I read, that hoisted the crew of Apollo 11 to the moon. How is everybody there feeling? Are you all nervous, excited, all of the above?

MCALISTER: All of the above. It really depends on who you're asking. There's definitely an element of nostalgia, but there's also a feeling of forward looking about what we're about to enter and to sort of a new phase with human spaceflight to low Earth orbit.

KELLY: Let me ask you about the spacecraft that they will be flying tomorrow, which, as we mentioned, is made by SpaceX. What can SpaceX do that NASA can't? Why outsource this to the private sector?

MCALISTER: Well, so it's not a matter of can or can't. NASA could certainly do it, but our sights are set deeper in space, right? We would like to go back to the moon and then on to Mars. And in order to get us to those deep space exploration missions, we determined that it was time to turn over low Earth orbit, which is where the International Space Station orbits above the Earth, over to the private sector. Sending people up and down to the International Space Station, it's really hard, but it's something that we had done successfully over 100 times. And we felt like the mission had gotten to the point where we could turn over more responsibility of that to the private sector companies like SpaceX and Boeing.

KELLY: So NASA will continue in the future to own, to operate spacecraft, but you're saying they will be the ones aimed at going farther.

MCALISTER: Yes. In general, when we look at it, you have to tailor your strategy for the particular mission that you're doing. So with low Earth orbit, that was a relatively more routine function that we felt like we could turn over to the private sector. And there was also an economic potential there because we felt like there was non-NASA customers that would want to go into orbit. When you're talking deep space, when you're talking about Mars, that's going to be very, very expensive. You're going to be pushing the state of the art technologically. And we feel like for that mission, NASA in a more prominent role, making more of the decisions like we did with Shuttle and Apollo, is more appropriate. So you look at the mission, and then you tailor your strategy appropriately.

KELLY: How does attempting this launch during a pandemic complicate things?

MCALISTER: Yes.

KELLY: I saw, for example, that half of SpaceX's engineers are working from home. How does that work?

MCALISTER: Yes. It's been a unique challenge for us to overcome. We can do a significant portion of the work remotely from our own locations, but there was also a significant portion where we couldn't, particularly with the astronaut simulations and training. They had to be inside the spacecraft simulators. You had to have the SpaceX engineers in the same room, working with them and checking things. So we had to be very careful with the masks and the social distancing and making sure that the astronauts were super safe. We normally go into an element of quarantine prior to a launch, but we were even extra careful this time around to make sure that the astronauts were safe and that we didn't take the virus back up to the International Space Station.

KELLY: That is Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA, speaking to us from Kennedy Space Center.

Thanks for your time, and best of luck tomorrow.

MCALISTER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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