BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Bad weather postponed a SpaceX rocket launch, which was set to be the first time a private company sent humans into orbit – and the first time in nearly a decade that the United States launched astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil.
Veteran NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley were prepared to launch from Kennedy Space Center's pad 39A at 4:33 p.m. Wednesday aboard the new Dragon capsule on top of a Falcon 9 rocket.
The planned backup dates for the mission known as Crew Dragon Demo-2 are Saturday at 3:22 p.m. EDT and Sunday at 3 p.m. EDT. The weather for both backup dates stands at 60% “go,” according to the Space Force’s latest forecast.
The former space shuttle astronauts went through the paces for their mission, including a traditional breakfast of steak and eggs, suit-up at the historic Operations and Checkout Building and a 20-minute ride to pad 39A in two Tesla SUVs.
Severe weather brought wind, rain and lightning to the Space Coast on Wednesday, leading to a tornado warning and a significant weather advisory hours before the planned launch.
Because the capsule has to intercept the International Space Station about 250 miles overhead, the capsule needed to launch at 4:33 p.m. Wednesday.
President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, at least half a dozen current and former astronauts and other VIPs were at the space center to witness the historic launch.
Despite the health concerns from the coronavirus pandemic and bad weather, spectators had gathered in hopes of seeing the launch.
Cathy and John Mayes and their daughter Meghan of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, drove all night to get to the Space Coast in time for today’s launch.
“Just to have it postponed,” Cathy said earlier in the day with a good-natured shrug.
“But we knew that was a possibility,” John said.
The family has a timeshare in the area and has visited Brevard County for several years. They’ve seen rocket and shuttle launches. As self-proclaimed space nerds, they were excited to see the SpaceX rocket go up.
When the liftoff occurs, it will mark the beginning of a roughly 19-hour journey to the orbiting outpost, where astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner are waiting to help open Crew Dragon's hatch. Once there, Behnken and Hurley will spend one to four months on board, depending on the demonstration mission's needs.
"It is definitely impactful from a personal standpoint, and it's a huge blessing to be working on this program and for NASA," Kevin Vega, a NASA engineer who works on Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon, told Florida Today of the USA TODAY Network. "My family's made huge sacrifices for the hours that I've spent working on this, so I think they own a piece of this, too."
During their journey to the ISS, Vega said, the astronauts will have two opportunities to manually pilot Crew Dragon if schedules allow. One will be a "far-field" attempt from the space station, and the second will be much closer – about 720 feet from the ISS.
The manual flying will give Behnken and Hurley a chance to use the touchscreens and take over from the computers, giving them real-world experience outside the simulators they've used until this point.
"Doug is ready for anything all the time. He's always prepared," Behnken, an Air Force colonel, said last week of his co-pilot and longtime friend. "When you're going to fly into space on a test mission, you couldn't ask for a better person or a better type of individual to be there with you."
Hurley, meanwhile, said Behnken has "every potential eventuality already thought about five times ahead of almost anybody else."
"There's no question I can ask him that he doesn't already have the best answer to. It's such an asset to have somebody like that on the crew with you," the retired Marine Corps colonel said.