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NASA and SpaceX are about to fly into space with a touchscreen

Forget playing a flight sim on your iPad. These NASA astronauts are about to go into space with the real deal.

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Demo-2 mission astronauts Bob Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley train with the touchscreens inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. 

SpaceX

When NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken launch in SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship on their way to the International Space Station today, they won't just be the first astronauts taking off from US soil since the shuttle era -- they'll also be the first astronauts to fly to space using a touchscreen. 

Hurley and Behnken are set to take off on Wednesday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Demo-2 mission, as it's known, is part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which has seen the space agency partner with SpaceX and Boeing in a bid to advance human spaceflight.

It's a first for NASA, and also a first for the pilots. Hurley and Behnken are veterans of the shuttle era, and are used to flying a spacecraft with the aid of fully manual controls -- everything from switches and dials to manual hand controls for docking. By comparison, the fully automated Crew Dragon is capable of docking with the ISS autonomously. Because Demo-2 is a test flight, Hurley and Behnken will still control parts of the flight manually, including when they approach the space station. But when they do, they'll do it with swipes, not switches. 

"Growing up as a pilot my whole career, having a certain way to control the vehicle, this is certainly different," Hurley said in a press briefing ahead of the launch. 

"You've got to be very deliberate when you're putting an input in with a touchscreen, relative to what you'd do with a stick. When you're flying an airplane for example, if I push the stick forward it's going to go down. I have to actually make a concerted effort to do that with a touch screen."

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The astronauts will be wearing custom-designed space suits for the occasion, complete with special gloves that will allow them to touch the screens. The suits, designed by SpaceX in collaboration with costume designer Jose Fernandez, also feature a single umbilical connection for cooling and communication systems, as well as a 3D-printed helmet. 

While Hurley and Behnken are the first humans to ride in the Crew Dragon, SpaceX hopes they will be the first of many. The company already has plans to take private, paying citizens to space inside the seven-seat, three-window capsule as early as 2021.  

As for whether we'll see touchscreens become the norm for space travel, Behnken is more circumspect.

"The right answer for all flying is to not switch to a touchscreen necessarily, but for the task we have... the touchscreen is going to provide us that capability just fine," he said. "It just might not be the same thing you'd want to use if you were suited up and trying to fly an entry or an ascent."