Washington (AFP)

After freight, men: the American space company SpaceX will launch two NASA astronauts next Wednesday to the International Space Station, a first which is coupled with another historic milestone: it will be the first manned flight launched from the United United in nine long years.

President Donald Trump himself will travel to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to attend the launch, which has been held up for the past few months. The general public was called to follow the webcast.

This program was launched by Barack Obama, but his successor sees it as a symbol of his strategy of American domination of space, militarily (creation of the Space Force) and civil: he ordered NASA to return to the Moon in 2024, an improbable calendar but which gave a boost to the old space agency.

In 22 years of existence, only two vessels developed by the Russian and American agencies had moored at the orbital station (ISS). In the 2010s, NASA entrusted two private companies, the giant Boeing and the young SpaceX founded by a thirty-something who made a fortune by creating the PayPal site, the South African Elon Musk, with the task of designing and building capsules which will take over from the famous American space shuttles.

The shuttles were huge, extremely complex winged aircraft that transported dozens of astronauts for thirty years. But its staggering cost ($ 200 billion for 135 flights) and two in-flight explosions got the better of the program.

The last shuttle, Atlantis, landed on July 21, 2011. Pending its replacement, NASA astronauts learned Russian and traveled in the Russian Soyuz from Kazakhstan. Cooperation has survived the US-Russian tensions. Russia charges 80 million seats for the round trip.

The hiatus will have lasted nine years instead of four.

- Bad weather -

At 4.33 p.m. (8.33 p.m. GMT) on Wednesday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will take off from step 39A of the Kennedy Center on the Florida coast, with the Crew Dragon capsule at its summit, developed by Elon Musk engineers thanks to more than three billion contracts awarded by NASA since 2011.

Bob Behnken, 49, and Doug Hurley, 53, seasoned in space travel, will be strapped into it - Hurley pilots Atlantis on his last trip.

19 hours later, the Dragon will dock at the station, where two Russians and an American are waiting for it.

The weather forecast is rather unfavorable, with a 60% chance of bad weather according to forecasters from Cape Canaveral. The next launch window is Saturday, May 30.

- The success of Elon Musk -

Despite the delays, SpaceX got the better of Boeing: the demonstration mission of its Starliner failed due to serious computer problems, and will have to be redone.

"It's a real success story," said Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA's Ames center in Silicon Valley, who met Elon Musk before the creation of SpaceX and now teaches at Stanford.

"Everyone was skeptical," recalls Scott Hubbard, who also chaired a security advisory committee at SpaceX. "The directors of large established companies, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, told me that the newcomers to SpaceX did not know what they were doing ..."

SpaceX ended up winning with its cheaper Falcon 9 rocket, the first stage of which returns to land vertically on a barge in the Atlantic.

Since 2012, SpaceX has been supplying the ISS for Nasa, thanks to the cargo version of Dragon.

The manned mission, called Demo-2, is crucial for Washington in two ways. First to break dependence on the Russians, but also to catalyze a private "low-orbit" market, open to tourists and businesses.

"We imagine a future where a dozen space stations are in low Earth orbit, all operated by the private sector," said Jim Bridenstine, boss of NASA.

Elon Musk sees further: he builds a huge rocket, Starship, to go around the Moon, even on Mars, and make humanity a "multiplanetary species".

© 2020 AFP