SpaceX will try to send a puppet to the International Space Station this weekend in a key test for the resumption of US manned spaceflight, perhaps this year, if all goes well.
Since the space shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth on July 21, 2011, no American astronaut has left North American soil for a space tour.
NASA pays Russia to take its personnel to the orbiting research facility at a cost of $ 82 million per head, round trip.
In 2014, the US space agency awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to take on this task.
But the program has been delayed, as security requirements are much stricter for manned flights than for unmanned missions to send satellites.
No one in America wants to relive the tragedies of the US space shuttle Challenger and Columbia, which disintegrated on air in 1986 and 2003.
Three years late, a Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to take off on Saturday in Cape Canaveral at 2:49 am (0749 GMT) with a Crew Dragon capsule on its nose. It will be for a meeting a day later with the ISS. The capsule is scheduled to return to Earth on March 8.
If all goes well, two astronauts will be on board the next time a seven-place capsule is launched. This should happen in July, but delays are possible.
"These things always take longer than you think," said Lori Garver, who was the second NASA official when contracts were awarded to SpaceX and Boeing under then-President Barack Obama.
At the time, this decision was controversial, with lawmakers complaining about a change in the way the United States pushes people into space and the loss of contracts and jobs for veteran large-scale aerospace companies based in their states.
"We have very few heroes left, and astronauts are our heroes." And losing control of NASA and allowing companies to take the initiative to transport them was a challenge for some.
– Less expensive –
SpaceX is no novice when it comes to travel to and from the space station. The company founded by Los Angeles-based Elon Musk has conducted 15 refueling missions to the spacecraft since 2012. One of its ISS-connected rockets has exploded in 2015.
The second manned version of the Dragon rocket was adapted from the cargo model, which proved to be reliable.
Saturday's mission is still a "big deal," said SpaceX vice president Hans Koenigsmann.
It took years to reach that goal.
"I do not think many people thought that the time period between the end of Shuttle and a new vehicle would be as long as it was," said Roger Launius, a former NASA chief historian.
The cooling of US relations with Russia has increased the pressure for the US to send people into space on its own.
NASA has always relied on the aerospace industry for its manned space programs. Launius recalls that at the time of the Apollo lunar missions, "almost everyone in that room was hired, not NASA staff."
What's new now is that NASA no longer covers all development costs and does not have the spacecraft that will be used to send people into space.
Instead, it buys a service for a fixed price: the 2014 contracts charge $ 4.2 billion for Boeing and $ 2.6 billion for SpaceX, with six missions and one test flight.
That's a fraction of the $ 4 billion a year that would cost to keep the original program alive, Garver said.
An unmanned Boeing test flight is scheduled for April.
Michael Neufeld, chief curator of the Space History Department of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, emphasized the importance of NASA opting for two competing companies.
"One of the lessons of the space shuttle is not to gamble on a vehicle," he said. "If there's an accident, at least you're not totally stuck."