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July 4, 2020

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Sleek Dragon capsule to carry NASA astronauts into space

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This is SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket during the uncrewed In-Flight Abort Test for NASA's Commercial Crew Program.
This is SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket during the uncrewed In-Flight Abort Test for NASA's Commercial Crew Program. (SpaceX) Photo Gallery

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — It’s back to the future as NASA astronauts launch again from the U.S. — aboard a retro-style “Right Stuff” capsule.

Make no mistake: This is not your father’s — or grandfather’s — capsule.

SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule outshines NASA’s old Apollo spacecraft in virtually every way. The Dragon’s clean lines and minimalist interior, with touchscreens instead of a mess of switches and knobs, make even the space shuttles seem yesteryear.

This fresh take on a vintage look will be on full display Wednesday when SpaceX plans to launch NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station — a first for a private company.

It will be the first astronaut launch from Florida since Atlantis closed out the space shuttle program in 2011, and the first American-made capsule to carry people into orbit since the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket — with the crew capsule atop — will soar from the same pad used for both of those earlier missions.

Russia’s workhorse Soyuz capsules, still in use after a half-century plus, have kept NASA astronauts flying to the space station. While reliable, the Soyuz looks dated compared with the snappy Dragon.

“We want it to not only be as safe and reliable as you’d expect from the most advanced spacecraft in the world … we also want it to look amazing and look beautiful,” said Benji Reed, a SpaceX mission director.

SpaceX and Boeing, NASA’s other commercial crew provider, opted for capsules from the start.

There was no need for another flying machine like the shuttle, which was built to haul hefty satellites and space station parts, said retired NASA manager Steve Payne.

“What we’re trying to do now is just taxi service up and down, and you don’t need the huge semi anymore. You can use a sedan,” Payne told The Associated Press.

“Yes, wings are nice. They give you more options as to where to land and a little more control,” said Payne, a former Navy fighter pilot. “But they’re not absolutely necessary. And since we’re trying to make this inexpensive and reusable and as simple as we can make it so that it’s cost effective, capsules work.”

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