SpaceX's Crew Dragon shows up at pad 39A, nearly 8 years after the last Shuttle left

Musk's mighty missile erected but not yet engorged with fuel as engineers check it all fits

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SpaceX took another step toward sticking humans atop its Falcon 9 rocket as one of the units, equipped with a crew version of the Dragon spacecraft, was erected at pad 39A at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.

The Falcon 9 went vertical at 2230 UTC last night to allow engineers to check all connections line up as expected. Once done, the vehicle will be rolled back to SpaceX's rocket shed nearby as the team works its way toward launch, planned for 17 January.

That launch date is, of course, highly likely to slip, and SpaceX will probably point a finger at the US government shutdown. The NASA resources needed to get the thing off the ground are most likely sat at home, twiddling thumbs, instead of signing off on mission reviews.

Still, launching a few days or weeks late is nothing compared to the years of delay getting to this point.

The first launch of the crew-capable variant of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft will be uncrewed, and will dock to the forward port of the International Space Station (ISS) following an on-orbit check-out of the spacecraft's systems. The Crew Dragon will then spend around two weeks attached to the ISS before returning to Earth in a test of the landing systems.

The next flight for SpaceX's Crew Dragon will also be uncrewed, and will demonstrate the system's abort capability should something go south during ascent.

If all goes well, SpaceX's Demo-2 flight test will launch in June with actual humans onboard. One of the two crew strapped into the thing will be NASA astronaut Doug Hurley who, in a pleasing piece of symmetry, piloted the last crewed spacecraft to be launched from US soil – Space Shuttle Atlantis on the STS-135 mission nearly eight years previously.

The first operational mission to the ISS could then take place as soon as August.

SpaceX's competitor, Boeing, is also planning to launch its Starliner capsule for an uncrewed test, this time on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V. This is targeted for March, and the abort systems will be demonstrated on the pad shortly after. Boeing's first crewed demonstration launch would then happen in August. ®


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