ORLANDO, Fla., Sept. 30 (UPI) -- Four astronauts who plan to travel into space Oct. 31 say the six-month mission will test the limits of SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft.
The Crew Dragon is expected to lift off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 2:40 a.m. that day -- the first capsule in history to carry four people.
The previous crewed SpaceX capsule, which returned to Earth on Aug. 2, carried two astronauts and spent two months in orbit.
Flying on such a new vehicle means nobody can tell those aboard exactly what to expect, astronaut Michael Hopkins, the spacecraft commander, said in a press conference Tuesday.
He flew to space once in 2013 aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule, which carries three people. Before that mission, Hopkins said he received support from other astronauts that had flown on it many times.
"This time, we didn't have people that could tell you or reassure you...that you're going to be ready," Hopkins said. "And so we had to figure that out a little bit on our own. I'm kind of thankful and very happy to say that we have."
Hopkins, 51, will fly with the pilot Victor Glover, 44, and mission specialists Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi, both 55. Noguchi is a Japanese astronaut.
The astronauts announced that they had chosen Resilience as the name for the spacecraft, which they said reflects the character of teams at NASA and SpaceX that continued to plan the mission through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The astronauts also acknowledged they have watched very closely as modifications to the Dragon were made following the first, two-month demonstration mission.
These modifications include more powerful solar arrays to power the Dragon for the longer period in space and a more durable heat shield in areas where erosion was found on the demonstration capsule.
SpaceX and NASA said Tuesday the heat shield issue never represented a safety hazard for the astronauts on board, but changes were made in an abundance of caution.
Noguchi flew on the first space shuttle mission in 2005 after the Columbia explosion, which killed all seven astronauts on board.
A NASA investigation of the tragedy found that a piece of foam insulation broke off from the fuel tank upon liftoff. The debris cracked the left wing of the shuttle, which allowed superheated air to enter the wing and blow it apart during the fiery re-entry.
"Having lived through that, after Colombia, I would say yes, we are following [heat shield changes] very closely," Hopkins said. "But I would also say there is an amazing team that has been brought together to work this issue, and we are confident in this team."
Hopkins said he talked to astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley about their experience on the Crew Dragon demonstration flight to the space station in May through August this year and that was helpful. But the upcoming mission is different in several ways.
The mission will boost the number of astronauts living on the space station to seven for the first time in years. That will allow more work with onboard experiments, the astronauts said.
They also plan to vote from space, which will be the second time Walker has cast her ballot from orbit, she said.
"They basically send you an electronic file, and you mark your choices and then you email it back" to the county election supervisor's office, Walker said.