Hawthorne-based SpaceX will have to wait a few more days to make aerospace history, with weather in Florida forcing the company to scrub Wednesday’s planned launch of two astronauts to the International Space Station, the first such launch from American soil in nearly a decade.
In addition to being the first American launch of astronauts since the space shuttle program was retired in 2011, SpaceX would also be the first private company to conduct such a launch.
With Wednesday’s launch scrubbed, SpaceX will try again at 12:22 p.m. California time Saturday.
Wednesday’s mission appeared ready to go, with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley secured inside the Crew Dragon capsule, perched atop one of SpaceX’s signature Falcon 9 rockets. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were both on hand to view the launch.
The skies above Cape Canaveral’s historic Launch Complex 39A appeared to be clearing as the day wore on. But less than 15 minutes before the scheduled launch time of 1:33 p.m. California time, the launch was scrubbed due to what SpaceX dubbed “unfavorable weather in the flight path.”
Behnken and Hurley, after spending more than two hours in the Crew Dragon capsule awaiting liftoff, then had to wait to disembark.
Both Behnken and Hurley are NASA astronaut veterans. Behnken, who has master’s and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering from Caltech, is an Air Force colonel who served as a mission specialist on two space shuttle missions. Hurley, a retired Marine Corps colonel, was a pilot on two space shuttle missions.
Despite the delay, excitement is still running high for the mission, which will mark a historic return of American manned spaceflight.
“This is a unique moment where all of America can take a moment and look at our country do something stunning again, and that is launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said earlier this week.
The flight is technically just a demonstration mission, showing the capabilities of the SpaceX Crew Dragon.
When the launch occurs, SpaceX will again attempt to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that lifts the spaceship into orbit by landing it on a barge — dubbed “Of Course I Still Love You” — floating in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX has nearly perfected such recoveries in an effort to reduce costs of future missions.
Astronauts haven’t launched into space from American soil since the space shuttle program was retired in 2011. Traveling to the International Space Station is now done aboard Russian Soyuz rockets launched from Kazakhstan.
SpaceX conducted an unmanned test flight of the Crew Dragon capsule in March 2019, sending the spacecraft to the International Space Station with an array of cargo and a mannequin playfully named Ripley, after Sigourney Weaver’s character in the “Alien” film franchise.
The company and its founder, Elon Musk, have dubbed the space station trips a stepping stone for bolder plans, most notably returning to the Moon and ultimately flying crewed missions to Mars.
Ahead of the launch, Musk expressed a slight bit of nervousness about the flight. But in one discussion, he said he was surprised his space company has come so far.
“This is a dream come true, I think for me and everyone at SpaceX,” he said. “This is not something that I ever thought would actually happen. When starting SpaceX in 2002, I really did not think this day would occur. I expected 90% chance we’d fail to even get to lower-Earth orbit with a small rocket. So if somebody told me in 2002 that I’d be standing here with the NASA administrator, meeting the astronauts and a spacecraft on pad 39A, the best pad in the world, it’s an honor to be there, I would have thought, man, … no way.”
Once launched, the Crew Dragon with its two occupants will orbit the Earth, with Hurley and Behnken testing flight capabilities of the spaceship, although it is designed to essentially fly itself and autonomously dock with the space station.
The ship had been scheduled to arrive at the space station at about 8:30 a.m. Thursday, California time. Exact timing of the docking under the delayed scheduled was not immediately clear.
A date has not yet been set for the ship — and Hurley and Behnken — to return to Earth.
NASA Deputy Administrator James Morhard said the return of American flight capabilities to the space station is critical to future research.
“Why are we here? We’re here to expand the human condition for all mankind,” he said. “… Right now we’ve got one astronaut on the space station, and when we get the full complement back, we’re going to increase our research up there by 300% and that’s about helping others. That’s why we exist.”
Bridenstine said he believes the launch will be a unifying national event at a time of frazzled nerves and heightened political divisions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This space program that we have in this country unites people, period,” he said. “It always has. We look at the most divisive times in American history. We think about the Vietnam War, the 1960s, not just the war, but the protests. We think about the civil rights abuses and the civil rights protests. The very divisive, challenging times. And here we are all these years later in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and we have this moment in time where we can unite people again.”
>> Want to read more stories like this? Get our Free Daily Newsletters Here!Follow us: