CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.—With the weather looking up, SpaceX and NASA officials vowed on May 26 to keep crew safety the top priority for the first astronaut launch to orbit from U.S. soil in nearly a decade.
Veteran NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken were set to make history on May 27, riding SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule to the International Space Station on a test flight.
SpaceX is on the cusp of becoming the first private company to put astronauts in orbit, something achieved by just three countries—Russia, the United States, and China.
On the eve of the launch, both the space agency and SpaceX have been diligent about making sure everyone in the launch loop knows they’re free to halt the countdown if there’s a concern, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are expected at Kennedy for the planned 4:33 p.m. local time liftoff, but “our highest priority” will remain the astronauts’ safety, according to Bridenstine.
Bridenstine said he texted the two astronauts on May 25 and told them, “`If you want me to stop this thing for any reason, say so. I will stop it in a heartbeat if you want me to.’ They both came back and they said, ‘We’re going for launch.’ ”
Hans Koenigsmann, a SpaceX vice president, said on May 25 that he and other company workers have imagined themselves in the astronauts’ shoes on launch day—“or their helmets.”
“That changes the equation pretty dramatically,” he said.
SpaceX has been launching cargo capsules to the space station since 2012.
“It’s a huge step, obviously, going from cargo … to launching two people that are dads as we call them and have families, kids, wives.,” Koenigsmann added.
NASA will have input throughout the countdown, but in the end, it will be SpaceX giving the final go—with NASA’s concurrence.
“SpaceX is controlling the vehicle, there’s no fluff about that,” Norm Knight, a NASA flight operations manager, said on May 25.
The odds of acceptable launch weather improved on May 26 to 60 percent. But that didn’t factor in conditions along the Dragon’s route to orbit.
SpaceX needs relatively calm waves and winds up the U.S. and Canadian seaboard and across the North Atlantic to Ireland, in case of astronauts Hurley and Behnken need to make an emergency splashdown.
If SpaceX doesn’t launch during May 27’s split-second window, the next try would be May 30.
The last time astronauts launched from Florida was on NASA’s final space shuttle flight in July 2011. Hurley was the pilot of that mission.
NASA hired SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to transport astronauts to the space station after commercial cargo shipments had taken off. Development of SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner capsules took longer than expected, however, and the U.S. has been paying Russia to launch NASA astronauts in the interim.
By Marcia Dunn