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Puffy 'cotton ball' clouds are a rocket launch's most common nightmare. Here's why they delayed SpaceX's historic flight.
SpaceX's first launch of NASA astronauts was scrubbed on Wednesday because of poor weather. The next...SpaceX's first launch of NASA astronauts was scrubbed on Wednesday because of poor weather. The next attempt is scheduled for Saturday. Rockets launching through puffy cumulus clouds can trigger lightning strikes, endangering the astronauts they carry. Those "cotton ball" clouds are weather's "biggest threats" to rocket launches, according to Jason Fontenot, the commander who oversees weather monitoring for the mission. Elon Musk says his company's rocket and spaceship are designed to withstand lightning, but it wouldn't be "wise" to take the risk. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. SpaceX and NASA were forced to delay their first astronaut launch on Wednesday, largely because the sky held too many fluffy clouds. The high-stakes demonstration flight, called Demo-2, is set to fly people in a commercial spacecraft for the first time ever. If successful, the mission would resurrect the US's capability to launch its own astronauts and kick off a new era of commercial space exploration. SpaceX, which was founded by Elon Musk in 2002, designed and built its Crew Dragon spaceship with the help of NASA funding to shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station. It's currently perched atop SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The next launch attempt will be on Saturday at 3:22 p.m. ET. The same weather conditions clouded the skies all of Saturday morning, but forecasters say the clouds may clear before launch time. Mission commanders will watch the weather closely in the hours and minutes leading to liftoff. Mission commanders scrubbed Wednesday's scheduled launch just 17 minutes before liftoff, since storm clouds created unsafe weather conditions for the rocket and the two NASA astronauts inside the spaceship. "You have the bubbling clouds out there — those big white puffy clouds that look like big cotton balls — those are cumulus clouds," Jason Fontenot, who oversees the team that monitors and forecasts weather for rocket launches at the 45th Weather Squadron, said in a call with reporters. "Those provide the biggest threats when it comes to launching rockets," he added. That's because the clouds' bubbliness comes from vertical development, which creates electric charge inside the cloud. "So if we launched near that cloud, we could potentially induce or trigger a lightning strike from that cloud," Fontenot said. That happened to the Apollo 12 mission in 1969. The astronauts inside the rocket felt the lightning strike, and it disabled nine nonessential instrument sensors. "Falcon/Dragon are designed to withstand multiple lightning strikes, but we don't think it would be wise to take this risk," Musk tweeted on Saturday. Of the 10 lightning-related weather conditions that could scrub a launch, the presence of cumulus clouds is the most common. "We had those hard requirements that when something hits, there's nothing we can do about it," Fontenot said of the weather restrictions. "So yes, it was kind of disappointing, but I'd much rather launch during better weather, and hopefully we'll get a chance on Saturday." The 45th Weather Squadron projects a 50% chance of safe conditions for the upcoming attempt. The main concerns are rain, thunderstorm anvil clouds, and those puffy cumulus clouds. 'Scrubs are part of conducting spaceflight safely and successfully' If weather doesn't scrub the mission again on Saturday afternoon, the Falcon 9 will launch astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the space station. They will stay there for up to 110 days before the Crew Dragon brings them back to Earth. "Scrubs are part of conducting spaceflight safely and successfully. During my last mission to [the space station], weather caught us too," Behnken tweeted on Friday. "We're ready for the next launch opportunity!" The last time the United States launched humans into space from American soil was in 2011, when the last space shuttle made its final voyage into orbit. Since then, NASA has relied on Russian Soyuz rockets to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station, a practice that has become increasingly expensive and limited US access to the station. But that could all change this weekend. "It is a pretty surreal experience and I'm extremely grateful to be a part of this big moment in history," Fontenot said.SEE ALSO: SpaceX can't wait even 1 second for bad weather to pass for a rocket launch with people because it could endanger their entire mission DON'T MISS: Why SpaceX's launch for NASA is such a big deal for Elon Musk's rocket company and the US as a whole Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Why NASA spacesuits are so expensive
MUSK MAKES HISTORY: SpaceX just launched 2 people into orbit for the first time, kicking off the rocket company's most important mission since its founding 18 years ago
SpaceX has successfully launched into orbit its first human passengers: NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug...SpaceX has successfully launched into orbit its first human passengers: NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. The astronauts lifted off at 3:22 p.m. ET on Saturday while riding inside Crew Dragon, a new privately developed spaceship that Elon Musk's rocket company made in part for NASA. However, the Demo-2 mission is a test flight that's far from over. Behnken and Hurley could spend up to 110 days in space after they reach and dock with the International Space Station. Garrett Reisman, a former astronaut who worked on SpaceX's Dragon vehicles, said success for Demo-2 could spark a golden age of commercial spaceflight. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. CAPE CANAVERAL — Amid the threat of rain and lightning on Saturday, one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets heaved itself off the ground at 3:22 p.m. ET with a thunderous roar of flames, smoke, and dust. Then, about 12 minutes later, a relatively small payload popped off the top of the 23-story launcher while moving close to 17,500 mph, slipping the spacecraft into low-Earth orbit. However, this payload is unlike anything the world has seen: a privately developed commercial spaceship called Crew Dragon, which is carrying SpaceX's first human beings — NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Shortly before their historic crewed space launch, the first from American soil since July 2011, the men shared ceremonious words from SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship over the radio. "It is absolutely an honor to be part of this huge effort to get the United States back in the launch business," Hurley said, minutes before liftoff. The flight not only resurrects American crewed spaceflight for NASA, but also opens a door for SpaceX to help commercialize space. The NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, became emotional while delivering remarks after the crew reached orbit. "I'm breathing a sigh of relief, but I will also tell you I'm not going to celebrate until Bob and Doug are home safely," Bridenstine said, adding: "I've heard that rumble before, but it's a whole different feeling when it's your team on top of that rocket." Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, expressed his enthusiasm during the first launch attempt on Wednesday: "This is a dream come true for me and everyone else at SpaceX." "I didn't even dream that this would come true." Poor weather threatened to delay the mission a second time, as clouds crowded the Florida skies and teased rocket-threatening lightning. A rain shower briefly soaked the rocket. Similar conditions forced NASA and SpaceX to scrub their first launch attempt just 17 before liftoff on Wednesday, since the Falcon 9 rocket could trigger lightning strikes from electrically charged clouds. Though the historic mission is on its way, the hard part is not over for the two men, SpaceX, or NASA — a partner that has invested more than $3.14 billion to foster the system's development. Launching rockets is something SpaceX excels at, with now 86 successful liftoffs under its belt. Flying crewed space capsules and keeping the passengers alive is another matter. To prove to NASA and the rest of the world it can be done, the astronauts will spend the next day catching up to the International Space Station, where they will dock the new spaceship for about 110 days before returning home. The stakes are enormous, with the success of the mission — marked by a safe landing in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida — bound to shape the future of SpaceX, NASA, and human spaceflight in general. A 110-day spaceflight to tame the Dragon Ahead of the crew is a highly choreographed sequence of events for their experimental mission, called Demo-2. Now in orbit, Behnken and Hurley will climb out of their spacesuits, get a bite to eat, and begin to test out as many systems on Crew Dragon as they can — including overriding the spaceship's automated controls to pilot the vehicle. They also plan to try out the toilet (which is shrouded in proprietary mystery) and eventually get some sleep inside the vehicle. "We're just excited to kind of put it through its paces," Hurley said during a press briefing on May 1. Within a day of launch, the ship will pull up to the International Space Station (ISS): SpaceX and NASA's ultimate, football field-size destination in orbit. Behnken and Hurley will try their hand at the manual docking controls before turning the automated system back on. If the procedure goes well, NASA says the ship should berth on Sunday at 10:27 a.m. ET and the hatches between the ship and the space station should open around 12:45 p.m. ET. The three-person crew of the station's Expedition 63, commanded by fellow NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, will be waiting to greet Behnken and Hurley. Although the Crew Dragon's final version is designed to stay in space for nearly seven months, NASA and SpaceX said this particular ship could stay up to 110 days. That shelf life, they said, is determined by the ship's solar panels; over time, a corrosive form of oxygen high above Earth will degrade the panels. "That schedule is a little bit in flux," Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX's vice president of mission assurance, said during a May 25 briefing. "NASA will tell us when we're ready to go." Before Behnken and Hurley leave the ISS, though, they'll grab a historic memento: an American flag flown on the first space shuttle mission and left by the crew of NASA's 135th and final space shuttle flight, of which Hurley was a member. President Barack Obama in July 2011 called it a game of "capture-the-flag" for the first commercial spaceship crew to reach the station. That competition is now down to SpaceX and Boeing, which is slated for a crewed test flight of its CST-100 Starliner spaceship in early 2021. "We definitely feel like we're in the lead to make it to the International Space Station and retrieve the flag that STS-135 left behind. But we aren't really focused on who's going to win and who's going to lose," Behnken told reporters on May 1. He added: "We're really focused on making sure that we technically get into space and get this vehicle checked out and accomplish the ultimate mission, which isn't winning against Boeing: It's providing this capability to the International Space Station so that we can start rotating crews from American soil." Elon Musk is most worried about the landing of Crew Dragon When the astronauts are ready to return, they'll climb back into Crew Dragon, put on their spacesuits, and undock from the space station. Then they'll get into position to blast off the spaceship's thrusters, allowing Earth's gravity to pull them back to the planet. This reentry of the space capsule through Earth's atmosphere — aside from the threat posed by space debris — is the "biggest concern" for Musk, he told Irene Klotz of Aviation Week. His worry concerning the new spaceship was the capsule's asymmetric design, which is driven by its emergency escape system. While screaming back to Earth at 25 times the speed of sound, the capsule's heat shield will deflect and absorb the energy of superheated plasma — but the forces of atmospheric reentry have a slim chance of causing catastrophic issues, Musk said. "If you rotate too much, then you could potentially catch the plasma in the super Draco escape thruster pods," Musk said, adding this could overheat parts of the ship or cause it to lose control (by wobbling). "We've looked at this six ways to Sunday, so it's not that I think this will fail. It's just that I worry a bit that it is asymmetric on the backshell." After slowing down due to drag, Crew Dragon is supposed to open its parachutes and splash down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida, where recovery boats will pick up the astronauts. Koenigsmann told Business Insider that is a concern, since the parachute packing can't really be tested before launch, but that the risk of failure is very low due to scores of tests performed by SpaceX. In all likelihood, according to NASA and SpaceX's risk estimates, the mission has more than a 98% chance of success and even higher odds of keeping Behnken and Hurley safe. NASA estimated the chance SpaceX might lose the spaceship during the landing phase to be less than 1 in 500. The 'beginning of a golden age of commercial spaceflight' Assuming all goes well from start to finish with the Demo-2 mission, experts believe the mission could represent a bold new era for human spaceflight. Former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, who worked for many years on SpaceX's cargo and crewed spaceship programs, said Crew Dragon and Demo-2 could signal major progress within the spaceflight industry. For one, he said, it'd be "the ultimate validation" of NASA's decision to split roughly $8 billion between SpaceX and Boeing and have the companies develop their own spacecraft and, in the end, privately own and operate them. That model contrasts with the agency's Orion spaceship and Space Launch System rocket programs, which NASA will own and operate but have amounted to tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer costs without a single test launch. "I think that the combination of those two things — the performance plus the cost savings — would be an incredible validation and endorsement of this whole approach," Reisman said. He added that the next stage will be the flights of private astronauts (or "spaceflight participants" in NASA parlance) to the space station. To that effect, NASA recently streamlined the ability of companies to fly citizens to the laboratory and foster commercial activities — even including the filming of action movies. Put together, he said success for Demo-2 would represent "the beginning of a golden age of commercial spaceflight." "We would be within a year of flying ordinary citizens in space, and that will be hugely transformative," he added. Reisman says that at first only the wealthy and well-connected will have access to space. But he added that the early days of commercial aviation looked very similar, with passengers spending inordinate sums to fly in biplanes while wearing tuxedos because it was such a rare event. "That's where we're at with space travel today, we're in the very beginning stages," he said. "We have to look forward to the day when we have Southwest and JetBlue." "The day will come when when everybody that wants to go to space will, for the most part, be able to afford to go," Reisman said. SpaceX is hard at work on a follow-up crewed launch called Starship, which Musk hopes can reduce the cost of access to space by 1,000-fold or more. He hopes to launch a prototype on a short "hop" at the company's burgeoning development site in South Texas in the coming weeks. SpaceX is working with NASA to possibly land the vehicle on the moon in 2024. Musk also wants to begin crewed launches in the mid-2020s and, perhaps in the 2030s, start building permanent cities on Mars. SpaceX also hopes its Starship project will dramatically speed up international travel from days to minutes with regular point-to-point flights at hypersonic speeds.Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Elon Musk's multibillion-dollar Starship rocket could one day take people to the moon and Mars
Flight is the first under Nasa’s commercial crew program, an effort to hand over lower earth...Flight is the first under Nasa’s commercial crew program, an effort to hand over lower earth orbit spaceflight to private contractors The countdown clock to the United States’ return to human spaceflight continued to tick down on Wednesday, despite a tropical storm in the Atlantic and thunderstorms at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center threatening the scheduled 4.33pm EST launch of Nasa’s first crewed flight in almost a decade.Mission managers gave the historic SpaceX Demo-2 test flight of Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew capsule no more than a 50-50 chance of launching Wednesday, but chose to proceed with preparations in the hope of a break in the weather before the planned liftoff time. Continue reading...