SpaceX launches NASA astronauts. Next stop: ISS
By Cat Hofacker|May 30, 2020
Begins "new era in human spaceflight" for U.S.
UPDATE: The astronauts and their Crew Dragon capsule, now named Endeavor, docked with the International Space Station at 10:16 a.m. EDT Sunday.
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley arrived in orbit moments ago, ending the nine-year hiatus of crewed launches to orbit from U.S. soil and setting up a 19-hour journey to the International Space Station.
The mission begins a “new era of human spaceflight” in which NASA will become “one customer of many customers in a robust commercial marketplace in low-Earth orbit,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said before the launch.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida today at 3:22 p.m. local time, with Behnken, 49, and Hurley, 53, in their Crew Dragon capsule, one of two competing designs partially funded by NASA under its Commercial Crew program. The launch was originally scheduled for Wednesday, but stormy weather and nearby lightning prompted SpaceX Launch Director Mike Taylor to delay it to today.
“Thank you so much for what you’ve done today: putting America back in orbit from the Florida coast,” Behnken told the SpaceX mission team in California as he and Hurley reached orbit.
The launch put the agency one step closer to an additional goal of eliminating reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft as NASA’s only transportation to and from the space station since 2011. The SpaceX capsule must safely ferry Behnken and Hurley to the station and back among other goals before NASA can decide to certify the Crew Dragon design to routinely carry crew. Dragon can hold up to seven crew members, but NASA flights will only have four to leave more room to transport cargo.
NASA calls the mission Demo-2, because SpaceX previously flew another Dragon capsule without crew to the station in a March 2019 demonstration.
Now that Behnken and Hurley are on their way to the station, they will wiggle out of their white ascent spacesuits, designed by SpaceX, and prepare to run their spacecraft through a series of tests. Those will include monitoring Dragon’s life support systems that provide oxygen and firing the Draco thrusters that maneuver the spacecraft.
“You just want to be methodical about everything you do because this is the first flight of a vehicle,” said Hurley in a pre-launch press conference. He piloted the last shuttle mission in 2011 and is the commander for Demo-2.
The 19-hour flight to station also will give Behnken and Hurley time to to provide a full account of the onboard experience for future crews. The trip is long enough that they will need to eat and sleep before docking.
Arguably the biggest test will come as the capsule approaches the space station, its nose cone open to reveal a docking port. Hurley will take the controls temporarily, demonstrating that future crews could manually fly Dragon and dock it with ISS should the need arise.
He will override the automated navigation software with a few taps of the glossy touchscreen display, a sharp contrast to the buttons, switches and joy sticks through which Hurley and other shuttle pilots maneuvered the space shuttle orbiters during previous flights.
“The shuttle had roughly 2,000 switches and circuit breakers,” Hurley said earlier this month. “So there were almost too many in some ways. You really had to be careful actuating a switch because it was very easy to hit the switch next to the one you wanted and to perhaps make things worse rather than better if you were adjusting the vehicle.”
Hurley will maneuver Dragon within about 100 meters of the station before yielding control to the software once more to complete the docking autonomously. Docking is scheduled for approximately 10:30 a.m. Eastern tomorrow, after which Behnken and Hurley will climb aboard ISS, where they will spend between 30 and 119 days tending experiments and helping fellow U.S. crew member Chris Cassidy with onboard repairs.
NASA has not determined how long Behnken and Hurley will remain on board, but Bridenstine said the working plan was for them to depart station in early August. When that day comes, they’ll climb back into their Dragon capsule and undock, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean hours later. An early August return would give NASA enough time to finish certifying the Crew Dragon design ahead of the first operational flight, currently slated for Aug. 30.
NASA is providing continuous coverage of Demo-2 from launch to docking to give space enthusiasts and casual viewers with a way to experience the historic flight without drawing large crowds to the Florida coast.
“This is a tough time in American history, it’s a tough time in world history,” Bridenstine acknowledged last week during a press conference. But that’s why this launch is so important. “This is a moment when we can all look and be inspired as to what the future holds.”
3:22 p.m.: Falcon 9 lifts off from Florida on mission to begin NASA’s “new era in human spaceflight”
After a nine-year hiatus, the United States is back in the human space launch business, this time on a commercially owned spacecraft.
Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley in their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 3:22 p.m. Eastern, catapulting NASA into a “new era in human spaceflight,” as Administrator Jim Bridenstine declared Tuesday in a pre-launch briefing.
The capsule is due to separate from the Falcon 9 about 12 minutes after launch. From there, Crew Dragon will spend about 19 hours in flight, periodically igniting its thrusters to catch up with the International Space Station while inside Behnken and Hurley verify the capsule’s controls and life support systems are working as intended.
Once the capsule autonomously docks with the station and returns the astronauts safely off the Florida coast, NASA will review the flight data and decide whether to certify the Crew Dragon design to routinely carry up to seven crew members to and from station. NASA will be the first to purchase seats on future Crew Dragons, but the agency hopes the capsules will also ferry private citizens and astronauts from other countries to space.
This story will be updated.
1:10 P.m.: Weather still a concern for second attempt of SpaceX’s first crewed launch
NASA and SpaceX have another chance to get the U.S. back into the human space launch business this afternoon, weather permitting.
The U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron that issues weather forecasts says conditions at Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida are 50% favorable for 3:22 p.m. local time, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley toward the International Space Station in their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
Stormy weather and nearby lightning prompted SpaceX to call off Wednesday’s attempt to launch the mission, known as Demo-2, because of rules that prohibit Falcon 9 from launching when thunderstorm clouds and/or lightning are spotted within 10 nautical miles of the launch pad. If a rocket were to launch under such conditions, the aluminum exterior could trigger lightning, sending electric currents through the rocket and causing damage to onboard systems or the vehicle to explode, said a launch officer with the Space Force’s 45th Space Wing.
May 27, 4:30: Bad weather pushes first SpaceX crewed launch to Saturday
The U.S. attempt to get back into the human space launch business will have to wait a few days.
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were just under 17 minutes away from launching toward the International Space Station when SpaceX Launch Director Mike Taylor halted the countdown this afternoon.
“I don’t think we’re going to get there with any of the [weather] rules today,” Taylor told Behnken and Hurley by radio as they waited inside their Crew Dragon capsule, as heard on NASA’s livestream of the mission. He was referring to the rule that prohibits Falcon 9 rockets from launching for 30 minutes once lightning is spotted within 10 nautical miles of the launch pad and flight path. In such a case, electricity can linger in the atmosphere.
A SpaceX egress team began preparing to help the astronauts leave the vehicle and continue quarantining at Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the next attempt, scheduled for 3:22 p.m. local time on Saturday. The U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron that issues weather forecasts says as of today, the weather on Saturday is 60% favorable for launch.
NASA coverage of the launch begins at 11 a.m. EDT.
May 27, 12:20: Countdown begins for first launch of astronauts from U.S. soil in nine years
Despite an iffy weather forecast, a large outdoor clock in front of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida began ticking down the seconds to 4:33 p.m. local time, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to lift off carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on a mission to the International Space Station. The astronauts are scheduled to board their Crew Dragon capsule at about 2 p.m. The launch will mark the resumption of human space launches from the United States and a shift by NASA toward commercially owned and operated vehicles. Astronauts were last launched from the United States in 2011 when space shuttle Atlantis visited the space station.
NASA plans to provide continuous coverage of the mission, known as Demo-2, through approximately 2:30 p.m. tomorrow, when the ISS crew will welcome Behnken and Hurley aboard station after their Crew Dragon docks.
Follow along here.