The countdown clock is running for a second time, in hopes of achieving a first: SpaceX is aiming to become the first company to send NASA astronauts to the International Space Station on a commercial spaceship.
If liftoff from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida occurs today at 3:22 p.m. ET (12:22 p.m. PT), it’ll be a feat that America hasn’t been able to perform since NASA retired its space shuttles, nearly nine years ago.
“We are going to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine declared during a launch-eve briefing at the space center’s countdown clock.
But even Bridenstine acknowledged that’s not a sure bet for today. “Weather challenges remain with a 50% chance of cancellation,” he tweeted this morning.
A drenching rainstorm swept over Florida’s Space Coast overnight, but the skies cleared up this morning. You can watch the countdown on NASA’s YouTube channel or SpaceX’s channel starting at 11 a.m. ET (8 a.m. PT).
Wednesday’s first launch attempt was called off with a little less than 17 minutes left in the countdown, due to concerns about lightning risk in the area around Launch Complex 39A. NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken had to climb out of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, walk away from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and wait a couple of days for their next date with space history.
Today’s forecast is about the same as Wednesday’s: a 50-50 chance of acceptable weather at the pad, with rain, thick clouds and thunderstorms as the main concerns.
The launch teams also have to monitor conditions out in the Atlantic, where strategically placed ships are standing by to pick up the astronauts if an emergency abort and splashdown is required. (Other ships are aiming to recover the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster and nose cone.)
Mission managers considered whether they would go ahead with a launch attempt, or see whether the weather would improve for Sunday. This morning, they decided to go ahead.
Pandemic or no pandemic, thousands of spectators are flocking to roadside viewing areas surrounding the launch site. Tickets to watch the liftoff from the newly reopened Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex are sold out, and all visitors have to wear masks and undergo temperature checks.
NASA asked people to stay home and watch the webcasts instead. More than 2.5 million people did so on Wednesday.
The launch can be scrubbed at any time, all the way down to the last second, if the weather doesn’t cooperate or if a technical glitch arises.
If the gumdrop-shaped Crew Dragon doesn’t lift off today, Sunday is an option. The chances of acceptable weather are expected to improve to 60%. But there’s also a chance that NASA and SpaceX would skip Sunday’s opportunity, give the astronauts and the teams on the ground more of a chance to rest up, and shoot for a June 2 launch instead.
If the launch goes ahead as planned today, the Falcon 9 would loft the Dragon and its riders eastward into orbit. President Donald Trump, who is flying down to Florida to watch the launch, would deliver remarks at NASA’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building about an hour and a half after liftoff, at 5 p.m. ET (2 p.m. PT).
Hurley and Behnken, who are both experienced shuttle astronauts, are scheduled to rendezvous with the space station on Sunday and move in alongside its current occupants, NASA’s Chris Cassidy and Russia’s Anatoly Ivanishin. NASA hasn’t yet decided how long the Dragon riders will spend in orbit. Their stay could be as short as six weeks, or as long as 16 weeks, depending on how the test mission proceeds.
For the return trip, Hurley and Behnken will strap themselves back inside the Dragon and descend to an Atlantic splashdown.
This whole flight serves as an initial demonstration of the Crew Dragon’s capabilities with an actual crew aboard. If the mission is successful, yet another Crew Dragon will carry four different astronauts to the space station weeks after Hurley and Behnken return.
Having the Crew Dragon would free NASA from having to pay the Russians upwards of $80 million a seat for rides to and from the space station, which is the whole point of the commercial crew program.
Back in 2014, NASA pledged $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX to develop spacecraft that would essentially provide taxi rides to orbit. SpaceX built an upgraded version of its robotic cargo-carrying Dragon, which has been used for space station resupply since 2012. Boeing built a whole new spaceship called the CST-100 Starliner.
The Crew Dragon flew a successful uncrewed test mission in March 2019, but the Starliner suffered glitches during its uncrewed test flight to orbit last December. Now Boeing will have to redo Starliner’s robotic test, while SpaceX is on the brink of making space history (and winning a capture-the-flag contest in the process).
It’s important to note that SpaceX, not NASA, owns the hardware passenger flights — just as a terrestrial taxi company owns the car. NASA has put in orders to ferry up to four astronauts at a time, but SpaceX can fly other riders as well.
In partnership with Space Adventures, the company is already offering free-flying orbital trips that would go higher than the space station. There’s even talk of having Tom Cruise ride the Dragon to the space station to film a movie. That would require NASA’s go-ahead, but on Wednesday, Bridenstine said he’s “all for that.”
“I really think, when we look into the future, we’re going to see these models of doing business with public-private partnerships apply not just to low Earth orbit … but we’re taking this model to the moon and even on to Mars,” he said.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space venture, Blue Origin, is already heading one of the teams aiming to develop lunar landers for NASA’s use. So is SpaceX, which is offering its next-generation Starship super-rocket. The next space race to watch may not be the U.S. vs. China so much as it is Bezos vs. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.