Powered by Guardian.co.ukWednesday’s crewed SpaceX launch will be the first time since the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis, on 8 July 2011, that astronauts have blasted off from US soil into orbit.

Here are the key things you need to know:

US is back to crewed missions

Since 2011, Nasa has had to rely on the Russian space program to ferry crew for months-long missions aboard the International Space Station (ISS), purchasing seats on ageing Soyuz spaceships for up to $85m apiece. SpaceX changes that.

Private space travel

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is one of two private space companies contracted by Nasa under its commercial crew program, set up in 2010 to seek “safe, reliable and cost-effective crew transportation to and from the ISS”. The US space agency awarded $6.8bn in 2014, $2.6bn to SpaceX and $4.2 to Boeing, to develop, test and fly human-rated spacecraft in low earth orbit.

SpaceX is winning the space race

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule failed to reach the ISS during an uncrewed orbital test mission in December and further testing dates are under review. SpaceX flew a successful unpiloted mission of its Crew Dragon capsule in March 2019 and passed further launchpad and flight tests in November and December, paving the way for the Demo-2 launch.

What about the moon?

Nasa is developing its own space launch system (SLS) rocket for its Artemis program, an ambitious $35bn project intended to return humans to the moon by 2024 and pave the way for missions to Mars by the mid 2030s. Already over budget and months behind schedule, the first test flight of SLS and its deep-space crew capsule Orion is not expected before late 2021.

Who else is in the sector?

The emerging private space industry includes Blue Origin, owned by Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, rivals in the space tourism market. SpaceX also has deep-space aspirations through its in-development Starship program designed for long-duration passenger and cargo missions.

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This article titled “Astronauts prepare for landmark SpaceX launch: what you need to know” was written by Richard Luscombe in Miami, Florida, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 26th May 2020 10.00 UTC