Weather forces delay for SpaceX’s historic launch of NASA’s first Dragon riders to the space station
Update for 1:16 p.m. PT: Today’s launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon is being postponed until May 30, due to unacceptable weather. Check back for a full update.
Previously: Nearly nine years after the last space shuttle flew, NASA and SpaceX are counting down to the next launch to put astronauts into orbit from Florida.
The launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will mark the first-ever use of a privately owned spaceship for a crewed orbital launch, and a renaissance for U.S. spaceflight.
“We are once again launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil, and this is a big moment in time,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a launch-eve briefing.
“This is a dream come true, for me and for everyone at SpaceX,” Elon Musk, the California-based company’s CEO, told a NASA interviewer as he waited for liftoff. “This is not something that I ever thought would actually happen. … It’s really hard to believe that this is real.”
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are due to ride SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It’s the same launch pad where the Apollo 11 crew began their journey to the moon, and where the first and the last space shuttle mission blasted off.
Liftoff is scheduled for 4:33 p.m. ET (1:33 p.m. PT) today, and NASA TV is streaming live coverage of the countdown. In-person viewing of the launch was restricted due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, but more than 2.5 million people watched the proceedings online.
Musk said he spoke with the astronauts’ families before Hurley and Behnken headed to the launch pad, and told their children: “We’ve done everything we can to make sure your dad’s coming back OK.”
The pair rode to the pad in a Tesla Model X SUV. After riding an elevator to the top of the launch tower, they signed their names on the wall of the white room leading to the Crew Dragon’s hatch, marking the start of a new tradition. They were helped to their seats by SpaceX’s black-clad “ninjas” and went through a series of communication checks. Then the hatch was closed, a little less than two hours before launch.
Assuming the launch happens today, President Donald Trump is expected to talk about the milestone mission and its significance at Kennedy Space Center’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building.
But launching today isn’t a sure thing: Forecasters said the chances of acceptable weather to 50 percent, with Tropical Storm Bertha passing over the Carolina coast, and there were further concerns about conditions in the Atlantic Ocean recovery zones that would have to be used for a premature splashdown in the event of an emergency.
As usual for a Falcon 9 launch, SpaceX has ships out in the Atlantic to recover the rocket’s first-stage booster and nose cone. Additional military vessels are on alert just in case Hurley and Behnken have to be plucked out of the ocean.
At T-minus-45 minutes, the launch team gave the go-ahead for the Falcon 9 to be fueled up and for the Crew Dragon’s launch escape system to be armed. The weather was still iffy.
If SpaceX and NASA decide to postpone the launch, due to weather concerns or any last-minute technical problem, the backup dates are May 30 and 31. But if the launch goes as planned, the Crew Dragon will catch up with the space station for a docking on Thursday.
A test pilot’s dream
Hurley and Behnken are scheduled to spend somewhere between six and 16 weeks on the station, living and working alongside NASA crewmate Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. Because of the uncertainties surrounding their test mission, it’s not yet clear what duties the Dragon riders will take on. Behnken has even been trained to take on a spacewalk if needed.
At the end of their tour of duty, Hurley and Behnken will climb back into the Crew Dragon for the descent to an Atlantic Ocean splashdown and recovery. Then NASA will assess the spacecraft’s performance, work with SpaceX to make tweaks if necessary, and get set to launch another crew on a different Dragon.
Hurley and Behnken are both veteran military test pilots with space shuttle experience. During a pre-launch news conference, Behnken said he was excited to be one of the first people to fly on a Crew Dragon.
“It’s probably the dream of every test pilot school student to have the opportunity to fly on a brand new spaceship, and I’m lucky to get that opportunity with my good friend here,” he said.
Hurley was the pilot on the shuttle Atlantis’ mission to the space station in 2011, which closed out the 30-year shuttle program. During that flight, Atlantis’ crew left behind a U.S. flag that was reserved for the next crew to arrive at the space station after a launch from Florida. Now he’s in line to retrieve that same flag.
“We’ll bring it back when we come back later this summer,” Hurley said.
Since Hurley’s previous flight, NASA has had to pay the Russians up to $80 million a seat to have its astronauts ferried back and forth from the space station on Soyuz spacecraft. If the Crew Dragon demonstration mission is successful, NASA will essentially be paying U.S. companies for space taxi rides instead. Any future Soyuz rides will be arranged on a barter basis.
NOT SURE IF I LIKE THAT EITHER.
I LIKE THE NEW SUITS
14 years of space commercialization
Replacing NASA’s old space shuttles was no easy or quick task: The job actually started back in 2006, when NASA made its first selections for commercial cargo transport services. With NASA’s financial support, SpaceX developed a first-generation, uncrewed Dragon capsule to serve those cargo needs. (Another cargo capsule called the Cygnus was built by Orbital Sciences, which is now part of Northrop Grumman.)
In 2014, SpaceX and Boeing were selected to provide more capable space taxis that would have all the safety features required for crewed flight. SpaceX redesigned its cargo-capable Dragon to accommodate crew, while Boeing built a new type of capsule called Starliner.
Both SpaceX and Boeing suffered setbacks. SpaceX notched a success with an uncrewed Crew Dragon demonstration mission to the space station and back in March 2019, but just weeks later, the Dragon erupted in fire during a test of its thrusters. The propulsion system had to be redesigned to fix the problem for good.
Last December, a software glitch spoiled Starliner’s uncrewed mission to the space station, forcing Boeing to take dozens of corrective actions. As a result, another uncrewed test mission will need to be flown, and Boeing seems certain to miss out on capturing the flag.
Although the spaceship development effort has taken longer than expected, NASA officials said in a recent report that the space agency got a relative bargain.
Phil McAllister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight, estimated that the space agency spent about $6 billion for the development of the two commercial crew transport systems .He said it would have cost $20 billion to $30 billion more for NASA to build its own system with similar capabilities.
That assessment suggests SpaceX CEO Elon Musk accurately predicted the future back in 2006 when he discussed what commercialization would mean for America’s space effort. “This is going to be the best value for money that NASA and the American taxpayers have ever received,” he told me at the time.
Theoretically, all those savings will free up NASA to set its sights beyond Earth orbit, to the moon and Mars. NASA has been spending tens of billions of dollars to build an Orion deep-space capsule as well as a heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System to send astronauts to the lunar surface by as early as 2024.
But at the same time, SpaceX and other launch companies are also setting their sights higher. SpaceX is currently developing a super-heavy-lift launch system called Starship, which Musk has said could be flying missions to the moon and Mars by the mid-2020s. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ privately held space company, Blue Origin, has lunar ambitions as well.
Meanwhlle, both SpaceX and Boeing are making plans to fly their own customers on space taxis, perhaps including action hero Tom Cruise. NASA’s Bridenstine has said he welcomes the companies’ efforts to drum up more business.
“We are going to be one customer of many customers in a robust commercial marketplace,” he said last year.
So if all goes well with SpaceX’s first-ever crewed spaceflight, it may not be long before NASA isn’t the only one having Dragon riders sent into orbit.
This report was first published at 9:10 a.m. PT May 27 and his been updated frequently since then.