The Irish Coast Guard will lead any search and rescue operation off the Irish coast this evening in the unlikely event that the crew of SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission are forced to ditch in the Atlantic Ocean.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft are due to lift off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida tonight at 9.33pm Irish time in what will be the first launch from the United States of astronauts to the International Space Station since 2011.
SpaceX is a private American aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company owned by Elon Musk.
This will be SpaceX’s final flight test, which will validate all aspects of its crew transportation system, including its spacecraft (Crew Dragon), launch vehicle (Falcon 9), launch pad (LC-39A), and operations capabilities.
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be on board the next-generation spacecraft.
Once the spacecraft’s hatch is closed, its launch escape system will be armed, which will prepare the spacecraft to separate from the launch vehicle in the unlikely event of anomaly on the pad or during ascent.
Weather conditions in the Florida were such this morning that NASA said there was a 60% chance the launch would go ahead as planned.
If today's launch does take place, the route will take the spacecraft along a corridor stretching thousands of miles across the North Atlantic in case the crew capsule has to break away from the Falcon 9 rocket in an emergency during its climb into orbit.
If this happens off the Irish coast, the Irish Coast Guard will be ready to respond and rescue the two-man crew.
The Coast Guard’s Shannon and Waterford based search and rescue helicopters will be the closest to respond in the event of an emergency ditching.
A spokesperson said today: "The Irish Coast Guard remain on standby to respond to any incident that may occur within it’s region of search and rescue."
In 2013, NASA made contact with authorities here ahead of the planned resumption of manned space missions.
NASA's Manager of Mission Planning and Integration Office for the Commercial Crew Program Mr Don J. Pearson visited the Irish Coast Guard's helicopter base at Shannon Airport.
Based at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas Mr Pearson later confirmed that NASA was looking at establishing a more formal relationship with the Coast Guard here.
Mr Pearson confirmed at the time that his visit to Shannon was personal in nature but said: "I was on vacation and wanted to drop by and see what it looks like and meet the people.
"We at NASA are interested in their capabilities and so we may establish more formal interfaces soon."
Irish Coast Guard Director Mr Chris Reynolds said at the time: "Mr Pearson had previously contacted the base by phone from NASA as he is interested in finding out general and contact information to determine 'rescue' options to further NASA's planning process."
Tonight's launch trajectory from Florida will follow a route North along the Eastern seaboard of the US, past Newfoundland, across the Atlantic passing by the South Coast of Ireland, the UK then on over Europe.
The rocket could be visible over the south of the country at around 9.53pm, twenty minutes after taking off from Florida.
Shannon Airport was previously a NASA selected emergency landing site during the Space Shuttle programme in case the orbiter got into difficulty on it's return to earth.