Weather concerns complicate plans for SpaceX’s next attempt to launch NASA astronauts

Alan Boyle
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine takes a question during a briefing at Kennedy Space Center’s countdown clock with NASA astronaut Nicole Mann standing behind him. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

NASA and SpaceX are keeping a close eye on the weather in Florida and beyond as they get set for a second attempt to launch two NASA astronauts in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule on Saturday. Or maybe Sunday.

During a briefing held today at the billboard-sized countdown clock at Kennedy Space Center, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said mission managers were weighing whether to skip Saturday’s first opportunity and go for Sunday instead.

The forecast for Sunday is slightly better, with a 60% chance of acceptable weather as opposed to Saturday’s 50%. Rain and thick clouds are the primary concerns.

Technically, SpaceX could make an attempt on the first day, and try again on the second day if weather forced a scrub. But Bridenstine said managers want to make sure the ground crew and the astronauts are all well-rested and ready.

“We have to start considering the human factors of that,” Bridenstine said. “The human factors end up adding some risk as well, because it wears everybody out, including our astronauts, although they never complain.”

Bridenstine said a decision on the timing of the next countdown will be made this afternoon, after the next major weather briefing. Several additional backup launch dates are being considered, including June 2, 3, 7 and 8, he said.

Update for 5:50 p.m. PT May 29: It took longer than expected for NASA to decide, but the decision was to go ahead with the launch attempt. “Weather challenges remain with a 50% chance of cancellation,” Bridenstine tweeted.

NASA and SpaceX are being extra-careful with this Falcon 9 rocket launch, which aims to send NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in the Crew Dragon capsule to the International Space Station for a weeks-long stay. The mission’s main purpose is to demonstrate how the spaceship’s systems work for the first time with crew aboard.

The mission would mark the first orbital launch of a U.S.-made spaceship with U.S. astronauts aboard from U.S. territory since NASA’s space shuttles were retired in 2011. It’ll also make SpaceX the first company to send people into orbit aboard a privately developed spacecraft.

Over the past nine years, the only way for NASA to send astronauts to the space station has been on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, at a cost of up to $80 million per seat. If this demonstration flight is successful, that payout to the Russians will no longer be necessary. For all these reasons, there’s a lot riding on this SpaceX mission.

Wednesday’s first launch attempt was called off due to concerns about the potential for lightning. “We had too much electricity in the atmosphere,” Bridenstine explained. “The challenge there is not that we were in a lightning storm, or anything like that. The challenge is that a launch could in fact trigger lightning. In fact, the rocket itself could become a lightning bolt.”

That’s basically what happened during the liftoff of Apollo 12’s Saturn V rocket in 1969. The rocket and the crew weathered the lightning strike, but the flash and its effects threw a scare into NASA.

Bridenstine emphasized that the safety of Hurley and Behnken was the top priority for this test mission. He noted that in advance of Wednesday’s scrub, he was often asked whether NASA would feel any undue pressure to launch, considering that President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other VIPs were in Florida for the event. (Trump has said he’ll return to Florida for this weekend’s attempt.)

“We have all been in agreement that there will be no pressure,” Bridenstine said. “We will launch when we are ready. And I’ll tell you, the president and the vice president were proud of the NASA team and the SpaceX team for making the right call for the right reasons.”

To underscore the point, Jim Morhard, NASA’s deputy administrator, referred to a quote from Deke Slayton, one of the Mercury astronauts and the Apollo program’s director of flight crew operations. “A good scrub is better than a bad launch any day,” Morhard quoted Slayton as saying.

Among other highlights from today’s briefing:

  • Thousands of onlookers flocked to roadside vantage points surrounding Kennedy Space Center for Wednesday’s launch attempt, and the crowds could be even bigger for a weekend launch. That has sparked concern about compliance with guidelines for social distancing and mask-wearing. Bridenstine urged the public to “follow the guidelines,” and noted that COVID-19 safety measures would be strictly followed on NASA property. Many of the roads close to the launch site will be temporarily closed.
  • Bridenstine said the length of Hurley and Behnken’s stay on the space station hasn’t yet been determined, and that the tentative Aug. 30 date for the next SpaceX Crew Dragon flight ⁠hasn’t yet been locked down. “Nothing is locked down before a test flight,” he said.
  • Boeing is developing a different kind of spaceship called Starliner to fly NASA astronauts to the space station, but because of glitches encountered during an uncrewed test flight last December, astronauts won’t be flying on Starliner until next year. Bridenstine said he expected another uncrewed flight test to be conducted by the end of this year.
  • In response to a question, Bridenstine put in a good word for SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. “He has brought vision and inspiration that we haven’t had for 10 years — since the retirement of the space shuttles, nine years,” Bridenstine said. “And I will tell you, he’s brilliant. He’s capable. I’ve been the NASA administrator now for over two years, and there have been times when maybe there was a little tension because of the priorities that we were focused on. But when I talk to him, when I meet with him, he gives me a commitment, and he delivers on that commitment. That has happened every single time.”

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