Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) is set to be the first privately owned rocket to carry astronauts into Earth orbit when it launches on Wednesday night. 

As part of what is being called the Demo-2 mission, the Crew Dragon spacecraft will carry NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley up to the International Space Station (ISS).

The launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida is scheduled at at 4.33pm Eastern time (9.33pm London time) tonight and will be the first from US soil in nearly a decade.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft carried out a successful unmanned test flight in March last year, the Demo-1 mission.

Astronauts Behnken and Hurley have been in quarantine since 13 May and will be tested for coronavirus twice before they leave for the ISS.

The Dragon spacecraft, which can carry seven passengers and significant cargo, will be launched into space by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. 

Once separated, Falcon 9 will return to Earth and land on a floating barge in the Atlantic Ocean, while the Dragon craft then catches up with the ISS in order to dock 19 hours later on Thursday.

Only a possible worsening of weather might be expected to delay the launch, in which case there are backup launch opportunities this Saturday and Sunday.

“We’re taking extra precautions,” Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, told reporters on a call. “We don’t really see any impact how we’re gonna operate on launch day.”

As well as being the country’s first launch of a manned test flight in almost a decade, extra pressure comes in the timing of the launch, with just a one-second window as the space station passes above the launch site in order to reduce the amount of fuel by Crew Dragon used in catching up with it.

SpaceX’s older Cargo Dragon ship, Dragon 1, has successfully reached the ISS 20 times without astronauts on board, with the Falcon rockets having carried out more than 80 launches.

Astronauts Behnken and Hurley are due to spend one to four months on board the orbiting ISS.

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Since NASA started its Commercial Crew programme in 2010, it has awarded contracts and grants worth US$3.1bn to SpaceX, ranging from the development of new spacecraft to ISS cargo delivery missions. 

The national space agency has also funded Boeing’s $4.8bn competing Starliner programme, which is around a year away from a planned manned launch.

Musk has said that SpaceX is not suitable for an initial public listing as the company’s goals do not align with shareholders and are not likely to until its rockets are successfully operating trips to Mars.

The company has, however, suggested that it could go ahead with an initial public offer of its Starlink satellite business in the coming years.

Live coverage of the launch will be shown on the SpaceX and NASA websites.

In other space news, Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit company, a satellite-focused sister company to the listed Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc (NYSE:SPCE) failed in its attempts to launch a rocket over the Pacific Ocean.

Virgin Orbit launched its LauncherOne rocket from under the wing of a retired Boeing 747 but was “safely terminated” after the rocket failed to climb into orbit.

“We accomplished many of the goals we set for ourselves, though not as many as we would have like” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart in a statement.

“We took a big step forward today. Our engineers are already poring through the data. Our next rocket is waiting. We will learn, adjust, and begin preparing for our next test, which is coming up soon.”

Tesla’s Musk replied to the news on Twitter, “Sorry to hear that. Orbit is hard. Took us four attempts with Falcon 1.”