[Author's note] Updates will be posted at the end of the article as the situation unfolds.
Wednesday May 27 is slated to be a watershed moment for the United States and the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). Since the discontinuation of the space shuttle program back in 2011, for the first time in nine years, a crew of astronauts, namely Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, will lift off from American soil onboard the Crew Dragon to embark on a voyage to the International Space Station (ISS).
Wednesday is also set to be a pivotal point for one private company in particular – SpaceX. Founded and headed by Elon Musk, SpaceX with its Crew Dragon spacecraft has been a prime contender for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program that launched a decade back. The overarching theme of the program? To outsource the development of the next generation of space capsules to privately-owned firms. This will help cut corners with taxpayer money and do away with the expense of ferrying astronauts from Kazakhstan inside the Russian Soyuz capsule.
Two contenders have been the frontrunners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Boeing and SpaceX. For now, odds are in the favor of Crew Dragon and SpaceX at a time when luck has not entirely been on Boeing’s side. The company’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft has run into issues in a background that is marred by an already failing venture with the Boeing 737 MAX – an aircraft that once promised so much. Having said that, Crew Dragon had its fair share of issues as well, particularly in the later stages of development.
Impressively, the Crew Dragon is set to be the third spacecraft in history to transport a crew to the ISS. The other two are the phased-out space shuttle and the venerable Soyuz capsule. Compared to the Soyuz, which can only house three astronauts, the Crew Dragon can cater to a maximum of seven astronauts on board. This can significantly cut costs as the net per head expenses of transporting astronauts decreases with increased capacity.
Come Wednesday, the maiden, manned test flight dubbed Demo-2, will verify whether Crew Dragon is fit for ferrying astronauts to the ISS. For clarity, the Crew Dragon spacecraft docked at the space station back in 2019, but that was an unmanned journey. If Demo-2 is a success, the Crew Dragon can potentially begin its service as early as September this year.
Preparations for Demo-2 are already underway and have picked up pace this week starting with the arrival of Behnken and Hurley to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Once settled in, the astronauts underwent a complete launch day rehearsal clad in their spacesuits after the Falcon 9 rocket successfully completed its static fire tests the day before.
Earlier today, SpaceX and NASA gave a go-ahead to the launch after the spacecraft successfully passed the Launch Readiness Review. With all preliminary tests successfully complete, Demo-2 is only a waiting game now.
With Behnken and Hurley on board, Crew Dragon will lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop the Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A, which is a monumental site. It’s the same place the Saturn V launched humanity to the Moon and from where the first and final Space Shuttle missions lifted off as well.
Barring any weather hazards or unforeseen circumstances, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is slated to take flight at 04:33 PM EDT (20:33 GMT). In case of any special circumstances, SpaceX has two alternate launch windows available on May 30 and May 31 as well.
You can tune into NASA TV or the official live stream of NASA for Demo-2. Details for that can be found here. Here’s a handy website with which you can convert the official timings to your time zones, should you need it.
Here's a succinct rundown of flight events given by SpaceX's Benji Reed. In summary, Crew Dragon will culminate the first part of Demo-2 by docking at the International Space Station on May 28, meanwhile, Falcon 9 will complete its journey back to the earth via a vertical landing.
The firm has uploaded a short video showing the simulated docking of the Crew Dragon to the ISS. This would complete the mission to ferry astronauts from American soil to the space station for the first time in nine years after the space shuttle program was discontinued back in 2011.
Demo-2 is called off on Wednesday, May 27 due to unfavorable weather
Unfortunately, with under 17 minutes to go to the planned launch at 04:33 PM EDT (20:33 GMT), NASA and SpaceX have decided to call off Demo-2 due to unfavorable weather. The relevant authorities and engineers were already monitoring the weather situation for the last couple of days and the official figures were oscillating between a low 40-60% for a favorable condition.
"We are not going to launch today."— NASA (@NASA) May 27, 2020
Due to the weather conditions, the launch is scrubbing. Our next opportunity will be Saturday, May 30 at 3:22pm ET. Live #LaunchAmerica coverage will begin at 11am ET. pic.twitter.com/c7R1AmLLYh
Now, SpaceX and NASA will be aiming for a launch on Saturday, May 30 at 03:22 PM EDT (19:22 GMT). This launch window was one of the two alternatives available to Demo-2 in case of any unforeseen circumstances such as this one. The second alternative is Sunday, May 31.
Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley waited for all the propellant to be emptied from the Falcon 9 rocket before the hatch opened for them to evacuate the spacecraft. Thankfully, no problems were reported thus far in the Falcon 9 rocket or the Crew Dragon capsule; bad weather seemed to be the only cause for the cancellation.
Final preparations for the Saturday launch are underway
SpaceX and NASA are preparing for the second launch window, which is Saturday 03:22 PM EDT. While all systems and equipment checks have been cleared, the weather is still precarious. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted that there's a 50% chance of a cancellation. With this in mind, there's another launch window available tomorrow, Sunday, May 31. Further down the lane, June 7 and 8 are reserved as well, but NASA is pushing for earlier launch windows as well.
You can tune in to NASA's 24/7 live stream on their official YouTube channel. Prelaunch streaming has begun. NASA and SpaceX officials have held a press conference where Bridenstine reassured that the safety of astronauts of Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley is a top priority despite the importance of the Commercial Crew program in cutting corners with taxpayer money. He also lauded SpaceX founder Elon Musk for bringing vision and commitment to the Commercial Crew program.
The Crew Dragon lifts off!
After finally going through with the launch, Crew Dragon has launched atop the Falcon 9 rocket. The rocket is officially on its way to the International Space Station now. Meanwhile, the Falcon 9 booster has vertically landed back on earth, as expected, after it dropped the Crew Dragon off in orbit about 12 minutes after launch. Now, the astronauts have a 16-hour journey to the space station before them. If things remain on schedule, the spacecraft is expected to dock at the ISS around 10:30 AM EDT on May 31.
You can watch the events below as they unfold live on NASA's live stream of the entire event.
How are you preparing for #LaunchAmerica? Feel free to sound off in the comments below.