CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The United States opened a new chapter in its grand adventure in space Saturday, when a SpaceX rocket blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center, carrying two astronauts to orbit from United States soil for the first time in nearly a decade.
It was a historic moment for SpaceX, which became the first private corporation to launch people into orbit, and for NASA, which has struggled to regain its footing after retiring the Space Shuttle in 2011, leaving the U.S. no option but to rely on Russia to ferry its astronauts to space for as much as $90 million a seat.
Both President Trump and Vice President Pence, the chair of the National Space Council, were in attendance to mark a new era of space flight.
The flight was the the fulfillment of a risky bet by NASA under the Obama administration to entrust the private sector to fly astronauts.
For SpaceX, it was the climax of an improbable odyssey that began in 2002 when Elon Musk founded a space company with the goal of traveling to Mars.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 3:22 p.m. from pad 39A, the historic site from which the crew of Apollo 11 left for the moon, after a seamless countdown where the primary concern was inclement weather that on Wednesday had forced a postponement of the first launch attempt.
The Crew Dragon capsule, which separated from the booster on time 12 minutes into the flight, is expected to dock with the International Space Station shortly after 10 a.m. Sunday.
On board the spacecraft are two of NASA’s most experienced space travelers, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, both former military pilots who previously had each flown two missions on the Space Shuttle. But their ride to space this time was on a vastly different spacecraft, a fully autonomous, next-generation capsule outfitted with Tesla-like touchscreens and temperature controls that allow astronauts to keep the cabin at between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
The launch came 3,250 days after the last shuttle mission blasted off.
Hurley, a retired Marine Corps Colonel, was a crew member on that last shuttle mission, which took off in July 2011, also from pad 39A. It was the end of the shuttle’s 30-year life span, and a devastating blow to an agency that suddenly had no way to fly its astronauts anywhere.
Despite repeated warnings by NASA to stay home because of the coronavirus, fans lined the beaches to watch a historic moment, but the space agency drastically limited attendance at the Kennedy Space Center.
Sunday’s docking will be handled autonomously by the spacecraft, though Hurley and Behnken have the ability to take over the controls manually if needed.
The mission, known as Demo-2, was a test flight designed to ensure the rocket and spacecraft can fly humans safely. Once complete, NASA and SpaceX would review the data and certify the spacecraft for additional missions that would regularly fly as many as four astronauts to the space station and back.
In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX, worth $6.8 billion combined, to design and build spacecraft capable of flying astronauts to the station. Previously, it had hired the private sector to fly cargo and supplies there. But outsourcing human space flight to companies was considered a risky and even reckless move in some quarters, even among NASA’s leadership. Along the way there had been a number of stumbles that delayed the first flights from 2017.
Boeing, the aerospace behemoth that had been by NASA’s side since the dawn of the Space Age, was considered the favorite to fly first. But it stumbled when the test flight of its Starliner spacecraft encountered trouble almost immediately upon reaching orbit. Boeing and NASA officials scrambled to fix software problems that prevented the spacecraft from reaching the space station and instead ending the mission early.
SpaceX also ran into a series of problems. In 2015, one of its Falcon 9 rockets exploded on a cargo resupply flight to the station. The next one, another rocket blew up, this time on the launch pad before an engine test. Then, last year, its Crew Dragon spacecraft blew up during a test of its abort engines.
But it has since investigated and remedied those failures to NASA’s satisfaction, and in the days leading up to the launch, the space agency praised the company many in the agency once looked upon skeptically.
Next stop for SpaceX’s Dragon capsule: the International Space Station
Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are on their way to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, but still have quite a way to journey.
Forty-nine minutes after launch, or at roughly 4:30 p.m., Hurley, Behnken and SpaceX flight engineers performed checks on Dragon’s Draco thrusters, adjust the spacecraft’s trajectory and begin an engine burn to align orbits with the International Space Station. Then the astronauts will get some well-earned rest, something NASA and SpaceX officials said was a priority given the high stress Hurley and Behnken have lived under since entering preflight quarantine more than two weeks ago.
Nine hours later, or after 1 a.m., Sunday, Dragon will burn its thrusters once more to better steer toward the space station, then perform two more burns almost two hours later.
Just before 10 a.m., Sunday, almost 18 hours after launch, Dragon will approach within 400 meters of the space station and begin an intricate docking steps. The spacecraft is supposed to perform those maneuvers autonomously, though Hurley and Behnken can step in to pilot the vessel if something goes wrong.
It takes about an hour for Dragon to advance from 400 meters to 20 meters from the space station, where it will stay for five minutes and prepare for docking. Another five minutes later, 19 hours and six minutes after launch, or just after 10:29 a.m., Sunday, Dragon will dock with the International Space Station, and Hurley and Behnken will climb aboard.
SpaceX launch a success as Dragon capsule separates from Falcon 9 rocket
NASA’s first human space launch in nearly a decade is a success. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley aboard, separated from the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage booster and entered a stable low-Earth orbit on its way to meeting the International Space Station.
The first booster of the Falcon 9 rocket has successfully landed on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean, a positive sign as the rocket’s second-stage booster and Crew Dragon capsule continue their launch trajectory into orbit and toward the International Space Station.
The first booster of the Falcon 9 rocket has successfully detached. In several minutes, it should autonomously guide itself to land on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean.
Crew Dragon has separated from Falcon 9’s second stage and is on its way to the International Space Station with @Astro_Behnken and @AstroDoug! Autonomous docking at the @Space_Station will occur at ~10:30 a.m. EDT tomorrow, May 31 pic.twitter.com/bSZ6yZP2bD
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket booster has ignited and lifted off from Kennedy Space Center launchpad 39A in Cape Canaveral Fla.
The liftoff does not constitute a successful mission, and instead begins a harrowing 12 minutes until the Crew Dragon capsule enters a stable orbit. In that time, the space craft must successfully detach from both of the Falcon 9’s rocket boosters, the first of which is supposed to land itself on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean.
Dragon’s journey is far from complete. It has 19 hours to go until it will meet the International Space Station in orbit. The capsule must dock with the space station in an intricate, computer-controlled dance and allow astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to safely enter the International Space Station.
SpaceX officials are conducting final stage checks at the Falcon 9 Crew Dragon rocket prepares for liftoff at 3:22 p.m.
NASA officials have indicated that the weather appears to amenable for flight, and SpaceX flight technicians have readied the spacecraft for flight without a hitch, even moving slightly ahead of schedule.
Within the final 15 minutes before liftoff, Falcon 9 will chill its engines prior to launch and power will transition internally to the Dragon capsule away from the rocket’s support structure.
At one minute before launch, the command flight computer will begin its final prelaunch checks and the rocket propellant tanks will pressurize.
Forty-five seconds before launch, SpaceX launch director Mike Taylor will verify a go for launch and just three seconds before launch, the engine controller commands engine ignition sequence to start.
President Trump arrived at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., just before 3 p.m. Vice President Pence, chairman of the National Space Council, and second lady Karen Pence are also set to attend the Falcon 9 Crew Dragon launch. First lady Melania Trump was scheduled to attend, but stayed behind in Washington.
Trump has made human spaceflight a priority of his first term. He turned the Air Force’s Space Command into the Space Force, its own branch of the military, and has pushed NASA to conduct a lunar landing mission by 2024 as a steppingstone to a mission to Mars.
Radar shows weather has cleared around the launch site and NASA announced at 2:35 p.m. that weather for liftoff is ‘go’.
Lightning and tall cumulus clouds which had earlier been in the vicinity of the launch pad have departed.
However, storms are lingering about 15 miles west of Cape Canaveral, along Interstate 95. Should these drift east, the launch could still be aborted. According to NASA, the chance of weather preventing launch is still 30 percent, but that’s a 20 percent improvement over the morning forecast assessment.
230p: Radar shows conditions have cleared around Cape Canaveral for #SpaceX launch but storms just 10-15 miles west along I95, drifting east. Tough call! pic.twitter.com/DDFeUwPWcM
Showers and storms continue sweeping across the Space Coast. As of 1:45 p.m., the launch was no-go due to weather, according to NASA. However, the storm activity might exit the region by 2:30 p.m. or a little after, and conditions might improve enough to allow launch at 3:22 p.m.
At 2 p.m., weather radar showed numerous showers and storms around Cape Canaveral extending west about 15 miles, to near Interstate 95.
The latest weather report from NASA television indicated ground and upper level winds are “go” for launch but that electric fields, lightning and cumulus clouds in the vicinity of the launch pad violate launch criteria. A weather briefing one hour before launch will update this assessment.
If all of the storm activity can clear the Space Coast before 3 p.m., and new storms don’t form behind it, the launch could happen. But it won’t be enough for storms to simply exit Cape Canaveral. The launch could be aborted if any of a dozen weather rules are violated for various cloud, wind and precipitation scenarios, including the presence of tall clouds that trigger lightning within 10 nautical miles of the launch pad.
This will likely go down to the wire.
New launch window would be Sunday if flight is again postponed. But weather now is good.
If weather postpones the flight again, the next available potential launch time is Sunday at 3 p.m., though the weather may not be any better. The Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicts a 40-percent chance of bad weather. Future launch opportunities are Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.
The flight has an “instantaneous launch window,” or a narrow period during which the International Space Station is lined up with the rocket’s flight trajectory. Any delay would cause the rocket to miss its desired flight path and not rendezvous with the station. So the launch must be on time.
SpaceX officials authorize fueling rocket, arming of emergency abort system
SpaceX Launch Director Mike Taylor authorized flight engineers to begin loading propellants into the Falcon 9 boosters and Crew Dragon capsule at 2:29 p.m. Fuel for the Falcon 9 includes liquid oxygen, often called LOX, and RP-1, a refined, rocket-grade kerosene.
In moments, the crew access arm will retract from the spacecraft and SpaceX will arm Dragon’s launch escape system. Dragon can autonomously detect any signs of trouble with either stage of Falcon 9’s rocket boosters and shoot itself away to safety, like a cork popping out of a bottle of champagne.
SpaceX successfully tested the abort system with an unmanned Dragon in January. The Falcon 9 booster was destroyed during the test flight, as expected, and Dragon, using built-in SuperDraco thrusters, glided away safely and landed in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.
Coronavirus remains a concern, even as launch approaches
As NASA TV lived streamed the preparations for the Space X launch, coronavirus concerns were on display in the masks that NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and others wore.
Both astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, have tested negative for coronavirus exposure. “And they’ve been in quarantine for more than 14 days,” NASA spokeswoman Megan Sumner said, referring to the standard pre-launch quarantine for astronauts.
The two men were applauded as they were driven to the launchpad. Among those cheering were NASA employees who are taking advantage of free coronavirus testing from a Florida department of health COVID-19 mobile testing lab.
Trump boards Air Force One en route to rocket launch
“The weather is very delicate,” he said. “But it’s very amazing. So we’re going over and we’ll be back in a little while. We want to watch the rocket launch. NASA’s come a long way. It was dead as a door nail, but now it’s the most vibrant place in the world for that, so I look forward to it.”
Behind the scenes as FAA prepares for Space X launch
From a command center in Warrenton, Va., a special team at the Federal Aviation Administration will be keeping a close watch on the historic launch of the first astronauts from U.S. soil in almost a decade. Two NASA astronauts are headed to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 booster.
With a growing number of companies seeking to commercialize space travel, the FAA has focused on developing new systems for more efficiently managing airspace. In the past, the agency may have had to close airspace for days around a launch site in preparation. Today while those closures may last only hours, they still can prove disruptive to air traffic. The FAA’s air traffic controllers coordinate up to 43,000 flights in the U.S. a day. At any given time, there can be 5,000 aircraft in the skies.
A FAA program known as the Space Data Integrator (SDI), however, seeks to integrate commercial air traffic with commercial space traffic by allowing air traffic controllers to see rockets just as they do airplanes. The shift would mean the agency could monitor traffic with great accuracy, potentially reducing the length of time that airspace must be closed off for space launches.
Clouds were gathering in Cape Canaveral and weather radar at 1 p.m. showed numerous showers and storms approaching the Space Coast from the west.
The storm activity, less than 10 miles from Cape Canaveral, is likely to sweep across the Space Coast over the next hour or so. Brief heavy downpours and gusty winds will accompany these storms.
It’s possible that, in the wake of these storms, there could be a calm period that coincides with the 3:22 p.m. launch. In fact, some high-resolution forecast models show a pause or lessening in the storms after 3 p.m.
However, additional storms could also fire after this initial round and any tall clouds with strong electric fields in the vicinity could scrub the launch.
In a 1 p.m. interview on NASA television, administrator Jim Bridenstine, who was briefed on weather earlier in the day, said, “The question is what time do the thunderstorms go away?”
He continued, “We’re hoping that the weather will hold up. The trend is better today than it was Wednesday.