NASA officials gave the go on ahead Friday for SpaceX and the agency to continue preparations for a historic lift of two astronauts on a rocket from Florida to the International Space Station next week.
The launch, scheduled for 4:33 p.m. on Wednesday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, could kick off a new era in spaceflight, where NASA relies on private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX to launch astronauts – a task it has used to hold its own.
President Trump proposed on Thursday he may attend the launch.
As during the space shuttle, NASA conducted what it called a flight readiness test about a week before launch to ensure that the spacecraft and launch systems were ready and that any significant concerns were resolved.
As the mission progresses well, the decision to move forward comes at the heart of NASA’s new turmoil. The agency’s head of spaceflight program, Douglas L. Loverro, unexpectedly quit Monday, six months after he got the job. Mr. Loverro, who will lead the flight readiness review, said Friday an interview with The Washington Post said his departure had nothing to do with next week’s mission but added to doubts about the Trump administration’s commitment to returning astronauts in the month of 2024.
This is the second disturbance in less than a year. In July, Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s superintendent, re-assigned William H. Gerstenmaier, who has been leading the agency’s spaceflight program since 2005.
Stephen Jurczyk, the agency’s associate administrator for the agency, led the review on Friday instead of Mr. Loverro.
Two NASA astronauts Douglas G. Hurley and Robert L. Behnken, will board inside the Space Crew Dragon capsule aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. They will arrive in space next morning. Their stay in orbit was originally planned for just two weeks but is now extended, as the station is short staffed.
NASA next week is considering a demonstration to test and validate spacecraft capabilities. If all goes well, the first operation of a Crew Dragon is scheduled for later this year, with four astronauts.
For nearly nine years, after the retirement of space shuttles, the United States has relied on Russia to provide transportation of astronauts to and from the International Space Station. NASA has developed its own new rocket, called the Ares I, but with overruns and cost delays, the Obama administration has decided it will be cheaper and faster to turn to private companies. In 2014, NASA chose Boeing and SpaceX, with hopes that the first launch will take place in 2017.
The use of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner capsule proved to be cheaper than NASA’s original plan, but probably not faster in terms of development. However, the new commercial spacecraft is also opening up the possibility of space travel to an increasing number of private citizens with the desire and wealth to leave Earth, even for a short time.
NASA is looking to take a similar commercial approach to the next months of missions. The agency recently selected design work funding among three lunar lander proposals that could be used for a 2024 mission. Mr. Loverro’s resignation on Monday may have involved contracts.
The agency did not elaborate on his departure, but in an email to colleagues in NASA’s human explorer and operations directory, Mr. Loverro said he took “a risk earlier in the year because I judged it necessary to fulfill our mission “and so far it is clear that danger is a mistake” to which I alone must be accustomed to the consequences. “
In March, NASA’s inspector general announced an audit of Artemis, the administration’s program to return to the moon.
Upon Mr. Loverro’s departure, his deputy Kenneth D. Bowersox, a former astronaut, was re-elected as interim head of the human spaceflight program, a role he also played after Mr. Gerstenmaier resigned.
Mr. Bridenstine did not mention Mr. Loverro’s departure Tuesday morning at a meeting of the National Space Council chaired by Vice President Mike Pence.
“As you announced just over a year ago, we will send not only the next man but the first lady to the South Pole of the Moon in 2024,” Mr. Bridenstine said in a report summarizing the development of NASA. “And we are moving forward quickly to achieve that end.”
NASA announced Mr. Loverro’s resignation Tuesday afternoon.