SpaceX Launch: Highlights From the Weather-Delayed Mission


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Weather conditions did not clear up in time for the SpaceX mission planned for Wednesday. The next opportunity to launch is Saturday afternoon.CreditCredit...David J. Phillip/Associated Press

With gray clouds above and choppy waves in the Atlantic, SpaceX called off a rocket launch for NASA that was to be the first to take American astronauts to orbit from American soil in nearly a decade.

The next opportunities to launch are Saturday at 3:22 p.m. Eastern time and Sunday at 3 p.m.

The launch of two NASA astronauts on a rocket built by SpaceX, the rocket company started by billionaire Elon Musk, would mark the start of an era of human spaceflight that extends beyond national space agencies. For this launch, SpaceX was in charge, although in consultation with NASA officials.

NASA is the customer for this mission to take two astronauts, Robert L. Behnken and Douglas G. Hurley, to the International Space Station. But SpaceX could also start selling flights to orbit to other people, companies and even other nations, promising new possibilities of tourism, manufacturing and research while circling Earth.

On Wednesday, however, more mundane considerations like weather intervened, forcing the postponement of the launch.

Flying separately, President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence arrived from Washington to be at NASA’s space center to watch the launch.

Forty-minutes before liftoff, mission managers had to decide whether to start pumping kerosene rocket fuel and liquid oxygen into the tanks of the Falcon 9. With the skies still gray and storms all around the launchpad, they made the call to try again on Saturday.

Light but persistent rain fell around the space center throughout the day. Later in the afternoon, the rain stopped and skies began to clear.

About 15 minutes before the scheduled liftoff time of 4:33 p.m. Eastern time, a weather officer, likely a member of the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron, informed the SpaceX launch director that the weather conditions would not clear up in time. If the Falcon 9 were to launch just 10 minutes later, the officer said, the mission might have been able to proceed.

But the liftoff time could not be moved. For the spacecraft to be able to meet up with the International Space Station passing overhead, liftoff must occur at a precise moment.

Calling off launches in Florida because of unfavorable winds and clouds, even with just minutes left on the countdown clock, is not uncommon, especially with the fast changing weather over Central Florida.

The decision to launch or not is governed by a detailed set of rules gained over years of experience. For instance, when winds exceed a certain threshold or clouds hold electric charge that could discharge as lightning, launches are called off, because the risk of catastrophic failure to crew, or cargo, is too high.

In describing why the launch was called off, Mr. Bridenstine said later in remarks on NASA TV that weather officers were concerned that a liftoff might “actually trigger lightning,” because of the excess of electricity in the atmosphere.

He praised the team that made the decision not to launch.

“Under no circumstances should anybody feel any pressure,” he said. “If we are not ready to go, we simply do not go.”

ImageNASA astronauts Robert L. Behnken, right, and Douglas G. Hurley, on their way to Pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday.
NASA astronauts Robert L. Behnken, right, and Douglas G. Hurley, on their way to Pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday.Credit...John Raoux/Associated Press

They both have backgrounds as military test pilots and have each flown twice previously on space shuttle missions, although this is the first time they have worked together on a mission. Mr. Hurley flew on the space shuttle’s final mission in 2011.

In 2015, they were among the astronauts chosen to work with Boeing and SpaceX on the commercial space vehicles that the companies were developing. In 2018, they were assigned to the first SpaceX flight.

Around 1 p.m., Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley put on their spacesuits. Mr. Musk and NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, each wearing surgical masks and standing a socially distanced six feet from the astronauts, shared some final words with the men, who then began their trip to the launchpad. Around the same time, NASA shared video of Kelly Clarkson performing the national anthem.

Upon arriving, the men paused at the launchpad to take in the javelin-like Falcon 9 rocket, nearly as high as a football field is long. Then, they went up an elevator, made some phone calls to loved ones, crossed a bridge before boarding the capsule. After a series of safety checks, the hatch was closed.

A SpaceX mission controller asked “Are you ready?” One of the astronauts replied, “We are ready.”

Even after the launch was finally called off, Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley had to sit patiently in the capsule for about an hour until the fuel was pumped out of the rocket and it was safe for them to get out.

SpaceX has never taken people to space before. Its Crew Dragon is a gumdrop-shaped capsule — an upgraded version of SpaceX’s original Dragon capsule, which has been used many times to carry cargo, but not people, to the space station.

Crew Dragon has space for up to seven people but will have only four seats for NASA missions. If this launch succeeds, it will ferry four astronauts to the space station later in the year.

President Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, arriving on Wednesday in Florida.Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

For President Trump, it promised to be the ultimate split-screen day. Even as the United States reached the grim milestone on Wednesday of 100,000 dead from the coronavirus pandemic, the nation was set to mark a trailblazing return to human spaceflight from American soil.

Leaving behind coronavirus meetings, he flew to Florida in hopes of watching the first launch of NASA astronauts into orbit from the United States in nearly a decade.

But there was a fair bit of nail biting in the White House about whether the launch would go off on schedule. With storm clouds threatening, NASA officials started the day saying there was a 50 percent chance it would have to be scrubbed. Eventually, minutes before the launch, that is what occurred.

The president, accompanied by the first lady, Melania Trump, made no mention of the death toll as he left Washington, just as he has largely avoided any discussion of those killed by the virus. But before taking off, he erupted on Twitter at those who have criticized his administration’s initial response to the pandemic.

The juxtaposition of the two milestones — the toll of the pandemic and the promise of a new space future — was a matter of happenstance, but they intersected in other ways as well. NASA was forced to put in place special measures to ensure that the astronauts did not come down with the virus or take it with them to the International Space Station, and it told space fans who would normally turn out in large numbers to watch such an event to stay home and instead tune in online.

On Twitter after the launch was called off, Mr. Trump said he’d back for the next try.

Michael Bay, the director of the 1998 cosmic disaster movie “Armageddon,” once gave an interview discussing the worst crisis in the making of the film.

“Three weeks before our first day of principal photography, I went to see the spacesuits,” he said. “They looked like an Adidas jogging suit on a rack. That’s where I almost killed myself.” Because, he said, if you don’t have “cool” spacesuits, the whole movie is sunk.

Apparently Elon Musk ascribes to the same school of thought.

Or so it seems judging from the white and black launch and re-entry suits the astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will wear when they hop into their white and black Tesla and ride to the Cape Canaveral launchpad to climb into the white and black SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for the maiden voyage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station.

After all, when it comes to capturing the public imagination around space travel, style matters.

“Suits are the charismatic mammals of space hardware,” said Cathleen Lewis, the curator of international space programs and spacesuits at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. “They evoke the human experience.”

Actually, what the SpaceX suits evoke most of all is James Bond’s tuxedo if it were redesigned by Tony Stark as an upgrade for James T. Kirk’s next big adventure. Streamlined, graphic and articulated, the suits are more a part of the pop culture-comic con continuum of space style than the NASA continuum.

Originally, Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley were scheduled to stay at the space station for only two weeks. But those plans were made when NASA thought the mission would fly in 2019. With delays in the development of Crew Dragon and another capsule, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, NASA ran out of available seats aboard Russia’s Soyuz capsule to the space station. It now finds itself short-handed there, with only one NASA astronaut, Christopher J. Cassidy, currently on the station with two Russian counterparts.

Thus, Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley are now expected to stay at the station at least a month to help Mr. Cassidy. Mr. Behnken has trained to perform spacewalks, and Mr. Hurley took refresher classes on how to operate the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm.

To replace the shuttles, NASA decided to turn to two private companies — SpaceX and Boeing — in essence to produce the rental-car equivalent of spacecraft. NASA would then buy tickets aboard its capsules for the rides to space.

This program has turned out much less expensive than if NASA had developed its own replacement spacecraft, although the capsules have faced many delays on the way to being ready to launch.

NASA under the Trump administration is also hoping to spur more commercial use of the space station, for purposes including tourism. Although the tickets would be expensive, passengers can buy rides to orbit aboard SpaceX’s capsule and may purchase seats on the Boeing capsule once it is ready to fly.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis touching down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2011, marking the conclusion of the Space Shuttle program.Credit...Philip Scott Andrews/The New York Times

The decision to retire the space shuttles was made in 2004 during the administration of President George W. Bush after the loss of the Columbia shuttle a year earlier. The shuttles were needed to complete construction of the space station. But their engines, heat tiles and aerodynamics made them complex to fly and maintain. Those factors, and the expense of continuing to operate them, led the Bush administration to decide that the money should be directed instead to sending astronauts back to the moon in a program called Constellation.

The space station was completed in 2011, and the shuttles were retired. The Obama administration, however, decided that Constellation was too expensive and canceled it. It then started the commercial crew program that led to the Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner.

Astronauts have been living on the International Space Station continuously for almost 20 years. After the retirement of the shuttles, NASA has had to rely on the Russians for the astronaut transportation, paying tens of millions of dollars for each seat aboard the Soyuz spacecraft.

The Soyuz is based on a model that was first built by the Soviet space program in the 1960s, and the capsule typically flies to and from the space station several times each year. With the start of commercial crew missions, the number of Soyuz flights will likely fall. It has proved a reliable vehicle for human spaceflight, although two astronauts had to make a safe emergency landing in 2018 because of a problem with one of the rocket’s boosters during takeoff.

NASA astronauts are likely to continue flying on Soyuz launches — and Russian astronauts on SpaceX and Boeing missions — so that the crew members are familiar with all of the different systems. However, NASA would then not be paying for Soyuz trips, but instead trading a seat on a Boeing or SpaceX craft for one on a Soyuz.

The parked cars of space enthusiasts at Titusville, Fla., who arrived to watch the launch on Wednesday.Credit...Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

NASA has urged spectators to stay away from the Kennedy Space Center for Wednesday’s SpaceX launch to limit the spread of the coronavirus. But officials from cities and counties around the launch site, an area known as Florida’s Space Coast, are expecting large crowds.

“When we launch to space from the Kennedy Space Center, it draws huge, huge crowds and that is not right now what we’re trying to do,” he said at a news conference.

But outside Kennedy Space Center, NASA has little control over crowds.

At a May 1 news conference, Brevard County’s sheriff, Wayne Ivey, encouraged people to come watch the launch.

“We are not going to keep the great Americans that want to come watch that from coming here,” Sheriff Ivey said. “If NASA is telling people to not come here and watch the launch, that’s on them. I’m telling people what I believe as an American. And so NASA has got their guidelines, and I got mine.”

Peter Cranis, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism said he expects a couple hundred thousand people to flock to the beaches and parks. More than a dozen beachside hotels — each with several thousand rooms — reported that they were fully booked ahead of the launch, he said. He anticipated Covid-19 might deter some, but many would still come to witness the historic launch.

Don Walker, the communications director of Brevard County Emergency Management, said he is anticipating big crowds on beaches and roadways, and that departmental staff will ask spectators to keep at least six feet of distance.

“Judging from the crowds on Memorial Day weekend, I would say that people are ready to get out,” Mr. Cranis said. “They seem to be very happy to be able to be out.”

NASA monitors the health of its astronauts, and both NASA and SpaceX have taken care to limit the number of people interacting with the two astronauts.

Two weeks before launch, astronauts go into quarantine, although that is not a strict isolation from all people. For example, in the middle of the quarantine period, Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley flew from Houston, where they live and train, to the Kennedy Space Center for the launch. Upon landing, they and Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, answered questions from reporters, albeit with ample distance between them.

The men have also been tested for the virus.

“We’ve been tested at least twice so far,” Mr. Behnken said when asked last week. “And rumor has it we might be tested again before we go. So I think in general, that seems like plenty.”

Reporting was contributed by Kenneth Chang, Mariel Padilla, Vanessa Friedman, Peter Baker and Michael Roston