ROCKET-MAKER SpaceX will send man into orbit today for the first time in its history.
The California firm, bankrolled by tech billionaire Elon Musk, is working with Nasa to fire two astronauts to the International Space Station.
Musk and SpaceX have launched plenty of spacecraft before. The company's primary goal is to make space travel cheaper.
Today's launch involves a Falcon 9 rocket, which to date the firm has flown 85 times in various forms – though never with people on board.
Atop the rocket will sit a Crew Dragon capsule, where the mission's two-person crew of Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will sit.
Here's how the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule work, and what to expect from the May 27 event.
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explained
The Falcon 9 was first flown in June 2010 and stands roughly 70 metres tall.
Its main gimmick is a reusable "booster" – the bottom section of the rocket filled with fuel – which separates and lands back on Earth following liftoff.
The Falcon 9 is powered by nine of SpaceX's Merlin engines which can accelerate the craft to 17,000 miles per hour.
It has largely been used to carry cargo such as satellites into orbit, or to lift supplies to the International Space Station.
However, on May 27 the craft will carry humans to space for the first time.
According to SpaceX, each Falcon 9 flight costs an average of $57million (£47million).
That works out to less than $2,500 (£2,000) per pound to orbit. Companies and governments pay a lot more per pound to book a spot on a launch.
Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket, with the first stage carrying it to the edge of space, roughly 60 miles above Earths surface.
The first stage is then jettisoned from the vehicle and autonomously flies back to Earth, landing on a launchpad in Florida.
Following separation, the second stage ignites its own single engine to take the payload into orbit.
Once in orbit, the payload (in today's case, a Crew Dragon capsule) separates from the second stage and carries out its mission.
SpaceX Crew Dragon explained
Crew Dragon is a capsule designed to carry humans into space.
It's about six metres long and cone-shaped. The craft can carry up to four astronauts into orbit.
Crew Dragon features touchscreen controls and even a "space toilet" for astronauts to relieve themselves during spaceflights.
Once separated from its rocket, the capsule can perform manoeuvres to edge itself into its intended orbit.
What is the ISS?
Here's what you need to know about the International Space Station…
- The International Space Station, often abbreviated to ISS, is a large space craft that orbits Earth and houses astronauts who go up there to complete scientific missions
- Many countries worked together to build it and they work together to use it
- It is made up of many pieces, which astronauts had to send up individually on rockets and put together from 1998 to 2000
- Ever since the year 2000, people have lived on the ISS
- Nasa uses the station to learn about living and working in space
- It is approximately 250 miles above Earth and orbits around the planet just like a satellite
- Living inside the ISS is said to be like living inside a big house with five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a gym, lots of science labs and a big bay window for viewing Earth
It can automatically dock with the International Space Station, allowing astronauts to board the orbiting lab.
Following its separation today, the capsule will take roughly 24 hours to reach the ISS.
SpaceX hopes to send paying tourists up in Crew Dragon capsules in future.
According to SpaceX: "In 2020, SpaceX will return America’s ability to fly NASA astronauts to space on American vehicles for the first time since 2011.
"In addition to carrying astronauts to space for NASA, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft can also carry private passengers to Earth orbit, the ISS or beyond."
Nasa SpaceX launch today – what is it and why is it important?
Nasa currently sends astronauts into space by piggybacking on launches of Russian Soyuz rockets from an air base in Kazakhstan.
The US space agency last fired one of its own astronauts into space in 2011.
Nasa retired its astronaut-carrying space shuttles that year to make way for a new space exploration program aimed at sending man to asteroids and other deep-space targets.
However, multiple delays to its development schedule have left the space agency without a way to carry out manned space flights for years.
Nasa hopes to fill the gap with spacecraft launched by private companies such as SpaceX, owned by Musk, and Blue Origin, run by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos.
Nasa astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will make their way to a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at the Kennedy Space Centre on May 27.
The ultimate aim of the mission is to dock a SpaceX craft containing the astronauts on the International Space Station.b
They will be ferried to the spacecraft on its launchpad in Florida inside a Tesla Model X electric car sporting the Nasa logo.
That's because billionaire SpaceX boss Elon Musk is also CEO of Tesla.
Hurley and Behnken will take a special elevator up 230ft to a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule atop the awaiting rocket.
When the countdown hits zero, the rocket will blast into space – carrying astronauts into orbit from US soil for the first time since 2011.
Once in orbit, the Crew Dragon capsule carrying Hurley and Behnken will separate from the rocket booster.
As is customary for SpaceX flights, the booster will turn around and return to Earth so it can be refurbished and used on a future mission.
"Crew Dragon will accelerate its two passengers to approximately 17,000 mph and put it on an intercept course with the International Space Station," Nasa said.
"Once in orbit, the crew and SpaceX mission control will verify the spacecraft is performing as intended by testing the environmental control system, the displays and control system and the maneuvering thrusters, among other things."
What is SpaceX?
Here's what you need to know…
SpaceX is a cash-flushed rocket company that wants to take man to Mars.
It was set up by eccentric billionaire Elon Musk in 2002 and is based in Hawthorne, California.
SpaceX's first aim was to build rockets that could autonomously land back on Earth and be re-used.
Musk hoped the technology would make flying and operating space flights far cheaper.
SpaceX currently uses its reusable rockets to fly cargo to the International Space Station for Nasa.
It also carries satellites and other space tech into orbit for various international governments and companies.
The company will take astronauts up to the ISS for the first time in 2020.
Other future missions involve carrying tourists and astronauts to the Moon.
Musk has repeatedly said he believes humanity must colonise Mars to save itself from extinction.
He plans to get a SpaceX rocket to the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s.
About 24 hours after launch, Crew Dragon will be in position to dock with the space station.
It can do this automatically but astronauts have the option to take control themselves if something goes wrong.
"After successfully docking, Behnken and Hurley will be welcomed aboard station and will become members of the Expedition 63 crew," Nasa continued.
"They will perform tests on Crew Dragon in addition to conducting research and other tasks with the space station crew."
The Crew Dragon capsule will remain docked on the ISS until it's needed to take astronauts back to Earth.
Nasa has not yet selected a date for the return flight.
In other news, a tropical storm grounded a key SpaceX launch twice last week.
Nasa recently unveiled the Tesla car that will be ferrying astronauts to tonight's historic launch.
And, incredible photos of eerie Martian landscapes have been released online by scientists.
Are you excited for the SpaceX launch? Let us know in the comments!
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