The countdown for the first crew launch from SpaceX to the International Space Station was less than 17 minutes. However, since the weather was not cooperating, the story had to wait until Saturday at the earliest.
SpaceX canceled the launch of its Falcon 9 rocket, with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken sitting up in the Crew Dragon capsule, with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence waiting in the starting blocks. The launch would have marked the first use of a privately owned spaceship for an orbital launch with crew, the first launch of NASA astronauts from U.S. soil since the space shuttle's departure in 2011, and the official start of a renaissance for U.S. spaceflight.
But dark clouds and rain swept the launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida all day. Tropical storm Bertha hit the Carolina coast in the north. And the conditions in the Atlantic were also difficult, where Hurley and Behnken had to jump down if an emergency occurred while they were in orbit.
There was enough hope to fill up the Falcon 9, but not enough to continue taking off. At some point you heard a member of the start team notice that an additional 10 minutes could have made a difference. The problem was that the rocket had to fire at 4:33 p.m. ET (1:33 p.m. PT) or hold back for the next opportunity.
A few minutes later, SpaceX launch director Mike Taylor brought the bad news to the crew. "Unfortunately we won't start today," he said.
"It was a good team performance and we understand," said Hurley.
As the VIPs set off for their next engagements, members of the combined NASA and SpaceX team packed things up for today's attempt and started thinking about the next one scheduled for 3:22 p.m. ET (12:22 p.m. PT) Saturday. Another starting option is planned for Sunday.
The launch's personal display has been limited due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, but more than 2.5 million people have followed today's events online. Streaming coverage of the next attempt begins on Saturday at 11:00 a.m. (8:00 a.m.) NASAs and SpaceX YouTube channels. Trump tweeted this He would be back at the milestone start.
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Before today's scrub, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk noted the importance of the mission.
"We're launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil again, and this is a big moment in time," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a briefing the night before.
"This has been a dream come true for me and everyone at SpaceX," said Elon Musk, CEO of the California-based company, a NASA interviewer, as he waited for the launch. "I never thought that this would actually happen. … It is really hard to believe that this is real. "
Musk said he had spoken to the astronauts' families before Hurley and Behnken went to the launch pad and said to their children, "We have done everything we can to make sure your father is okay."
The Crew Dragon is equipped with a start-escape system that blows the capsule off its missile if something goes wrong when it takes off. A novel parachute system was developed and tested to ensure safe descent, and a fleet of ships was ready in the Atlantic to rescue the crew in the event of an emergency spray. SpaceX had prepared other ships to try to restore the Falcon 9's first stage booster and nose cone.
All of these arrangements will come back into play on Saturday when the weather forecast is available shows only a 40% chance of acceptable starting conditions.
"I think we will feel a lot of Deja Vu on Saturday," said Dan Huot, NASA's launch commentator.
A test pilot's dream
If the launch takes place on Saturday, Hurley and Behnken would reach the space station on Sunday.
They are said to spend between six and 16 weeks on the station, living and working with NASA crew member Chris Cassidy and the Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. Due to the uncertainties associated with their test mission, it is not yet clear which tasks the dragon riders will take on. But with years of training, they should be ready for anything. Behnken was even trained to take a space walk if necessary.
At the end of their business trip, Hurley and Behnken climb back into the Crew Dragon to descend for a splash and a rest of the Atlantic Ocean. NASA will then evaluate the spacecraft's performance, optimize it with SpaceX if necessary, and launch another crew on a different kite.
Hurley and Behnken are both experienced military test pilots with space shuttle experience. During a pre-launch press conference, Behnken said he was excited to be one of the first to fly a Crew Dragon. "It is probably every test pilot student's dream to have the opportunity to fly on a brand new spaceship and I am happy to have this opportunity here with my good friend," he said.
Hurley was the pilot of the Shuttle Atlantis' mission to the space station in 2011, completing the 30-year shuttle program. During this flight, the crew of Atlantis left a U.S. flag that was reserved for the next crew to arrive at the space station after launching from Florida. Now he's in line to get the same flag.
"We will bring it back when we come back later this summer," said Hurley.
Since Hurley's previous flight, NASA has had to pay the Russians up to $ 80 million per seat to allow their astronauts to travel from the space station to the Soyuz spacecraft. If Crew Dragon's demonstration mission is successful, NASA will instead essentially pay US companies for space taxi rides instead. All future Soyuz trips will be arranged on an exchange basis.
14 years commercialization of space
Replacing NASA's old space shuttle was not an easy or quick task: work began back in 2006 when NASA made its first selection for commercial cargo transportation services. With the financial support of NASA, SpaceX developed a first generation unscrewed kite capsule to meet this cargo requirement. (Another cargo capsule called Cygnus was built by Orbital Sciences, which is now part of Northrop Grumman.)
In 2014, SpaceX and Boeing were selected to provide more powerful space taxis that have all of the safety features required for crewed flights. SpaceX upgraded its cargo kite to accommodate the crew, while Boeing built a new capsule type called Starliner.
Both SpaceX and Boeing suffered setbacks. SpaceX achieved success with an unmanned Crew Dragon demonstration mission to the space station and back in March 2019, but only weeks later, the dragon caught fire during a test of its engines. The drive system had to be redesigned to finally solve the problem.
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Last December, a software bug corrupted Starliner's mission to the space station and forced Boeing to take dozens of corrective actions. As a result, another test mission has to be flown without a crew, and Boeing certainly seems to be missing out on conquering the flag.
Although spacecraft development efforts have taken longer than expected, NASA officials have said in a recent report that the space agency made a relative bargain.
Phil McAllister, NASA's director of commercial space, estimated that the space agency spent approximately $ 6 billion on the development of the two transportation systems for commercial crew members. He said it would have cost $ 20-30 billion more if NASA had built its own system with similar capabilities.
This assessment suggests that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk already predicted the future in 2006 when he discussed what commercialization would mean for America's space efforts. "This will be the best value for money that NASA and American taxpayers have ever received." he told me back then.
In theory, all of these savings will enable NASA to target its non-Earth orbits toward the Moon and Mars. NASA has spent tens of billions of dollars building an Orion space capsule and a heavy-duty rocket called the Space Launch System to send astronauts to the surface of the moon by 2024.
At the same time, SpaceX and other start-up companies set their goals higher. SpaceX is currently developing a super-heavy lift launch system called Starship that, according to Musk, could fly missions to the moon and Mars by the mid-2020s. Amazon's private space company, Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin, also has lunar ambitions.
In the meantime, both SpaceX and Boeing are planning to fly their own customers with space taxis, possibly also with the action hero Tom Cruise. Bridenstine from NASA said he welcomed the company's efforts to do more business.
"We will be a customer of many customers in a robust commercial market." he said last year.
So if everything goes well with SpaceX's first manned space flight, it won't be long before NASA is not the only one to send Dragon Riders into orbit.
This report was first published on May 27 at 9:10 a.m. and has been updated regularly since then.