ORLANDO, Fla., March 19 (UPI) -- NASA and SpaceX officially announced the nation's return to human spaceflight from U.S. soil is planned for mid-May.
The announcement late Wednesday was expected, as the first flight with astronauts of SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule. The spacecraft would carry Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station. NASA has not set an exact date or time.
The mission would be the first launch of American astronauts aboard an American rocket and spacecraft since the final space shuttle mission on July 8, 2011, with the exception of Virgin Galactic demonstration flights.
The space station has been accessible to astronauts only through the purchase of seats on Russian capsules launched from Kazakhstan for the last nine years.
The spacecraft will be launched atop SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket from Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The launch announcement came soon after the space center announced it was limiting on-site activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic to "mission-critical" personnel. All other NASA employees and contractors are required to work from home.
The launch is considered the final test of SpaceX's crewed system, including docking, splashdown and recovery, before SpaceX is certified to conduct regular flights to the space station.
The company's successful in-flight test in January showed that the capsule could carry astronauts to safety in an emergency.
SpaceX has pioneered the use of reusable rocket boosters, landing them 50 times after launches. Company founder Elon Musk has said often that reusability lowers the cost of getting to space, which is necessary for more human exploration. The company recently flew its 20th uncrewed cargo mission to the space station.
SpaceX is competing with Boeing to supply astronaut ferry service to the space station. Boeing ran into problems in December with an uncrewed test flight for its Starliner capsule failing to reach the orbit required for the rendezvous.
NASA and Boeing have agreed to 61 corrective actions to make before moving ahead with another Starliner mission. NASA has not decided if it will require another test flight before sending astronauts aloft in the Starliner capsule.