UPDATE: NASA and SpaceX’s Crew-1 astronaut launch has been delayed from Saturday night until 7:27 p.m. on Sunday. The story below was written before the launch was delayed. It’s unclear if the 24-hour delay will impact how many space fans are expected to drive from out of town to watch the historic launch.
ORIGINAL STORY BELOW
Emergency officials expect up to 250,000 out-of-county day-trippers to converge on viewing spots surrounding the Kennedy Space Center and along the beaches for Saturday’s nighttime SpaceX crewed launch to the International Space Station.
On top of that, Brevard County Communications Director Don Walker predicts perhaps 250,000 people already within the county — residents, hotel and vacation rental guests, beach-goers — will head outside to watch Saturday’s historic launch, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
“Any parking space along A1A is prime real estate Saturday,” Walker said.
NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi are scheduled for liftoff at 7:49 p.m. Saturday aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center.
During the last week of May, huge crowds flocked to the Space Coast twice — for a May 27 scrub and the May 30 launch — of SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2, the first human spaceflight launch from the U.S. since 2011. Saturday’s launch will be the second crewed mission.
However, NASA officials ask spectators to socially distance and remain vigilant amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
And lingering showers from erratic Tropical Storm Eta — which is forecast to zoom far offshore by Saturday — may pose problems. The launch window is instantaneous.
Thursday morning, the 45th Space Wing upgraded the forecast to 70% “go” for liftoff on Saturday. Atlantic Ocean conditions could still be a factor. Why? The Crew Dragon capsule could abort the mission along its northeastern trajectory during an emergency, forcing an astronaut rescue at sea.
Prediction: Full hotels
According to mobile-device tracking data compiled by AirSage, about 220,000 devices from outside Brevard County were detected here on May 30, Space Coast Office of Tourism Executive Director Peter Cranis said. That sum included about 70,000 out-of-state mobile devices.
Cranis said the first SpaceX human space launch generated $27 million to $28 million in economic impact in Brevard — a welcome boost during the coronavirus-triggered recession.
“Very positive, obviously. We were coming right off of hotels not being allowed to have tourists in them. And we had Memorial Day weekend the weekend before,” Cranis said.
“So the timing of the last launch was really well-timed for us, from an economic perspective. This one is looking to be similar. Because it’s happening on a Saturday, and it’s happening in prime time,” he said.
“I think we’re going to see full hotels for this weekend. Of course, we’re dealing with the effects of Eta — the thing is just languishing out there,” he said.
Saturday’s launch spectators will provide an economic jolt amid the COVID-19 pandemic for hoteliers, restaurants, retailers and other businesses. Cranis said launch day-trippers likely spend about $50 per day, while spectators who stay overnight spend about $350 per person.
Brevard hotel occupancy hit 86.7% on May 30 during the SpaceX Crew Dragon launch, Cranis said. That was up from 74.4% occupancy on May 30, 2019, before COVID-19 struck.
Hampered by the coronavirus, collections of Brevard County’s 5% tourist development tax on hotel rooms and short-term rentals dropped 18.5% this fiscal year (October 2019 to September 2020), from $16.02 million to $13.07 million.
COVID-19 social distancing
Launch crowds will spark coronavirus concerns about lack of social distancing at sites such as the A. Max Brewer Bridge in Titusville — where throngs of people jammed together in May, triggering a social-media uproar.
“I think we’re expecting a large turnout,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, said during a Tuesday flight readiness briefing.
Lueders said she wants NASA fans to celebrate and enjoy “what I’m sure is going to be a spectacular launch.” But she stressed the need for social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We do want people to be careful when they’re out there. I know from a NASA and SpaceX perspective — and I’m sure a (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) perspective — we’d be really sad if this was a superspreader event. You know, this would not be good for us,” Lueders said.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex will open additional outdoor viewing areas, including sections of parking lots, to enable social distancing for launch viewers, spokesperson Rebecca Burgman said.
The visitor complex is also requiring masks and conducting daily temperature checks for visitors and employees.
“Just like we’re taking care of our crew members, we want you to take care of yourself and wear your masks and, you know, figure out how to get your 6 feet on the beach,” Lueders said.
Heavy traffic anticipated
Tuesday morning, a Florida Department of Transportation crew began installing temporary orange mesh fencing along the Beachline Expressway median between Port Canaveral and Merritt Island to prevent launch spectators from making illegal U-turns.
“(FDOT) will be encouraging motorists to use alternate routes other than State Road 528 on social media and in other outreach efforts. This is important because we have seen alternate routes for departing the area underutilized during events like this,” said Jessica Ottaviano, FDOT spokesperson.
“Alternate routes include State Road 520, U.S. 1, State Road 50 and State Road 46,” Ottaviano said.
Anticipating heavy traffic, FDOT will prohibit left turns from northbound State Road A1A to westbound SR 520 in Cocoa Beach.
Portable message signs will provide pre-launch traffic information for inbound traffic and post-launch updates for outbound traffic. Additional Road Ranger patrols will also be deployed.
“Be alert on Interstate 95 for potential slow-downs or back-ups, especially approaching off-ramps throughout Brevard County. The department reminds drivers to always drive alert and avoid distractions while driving,” Ottaviano said.
Eta departs the area
Eta’s slow-motion trek has generated gloomy skies, showers and wind gusts across the Space Coast for days.
By 7 a.m. Thursday, the National Hurricane Center cone showed Eta squarely centered in north-central Florida. Forecasters projected the storm would soon sweep offshore, approaching the North Carolina-South Carolina border by 1 a.m. Friday.
“For Saturday, we have a very low chance of rain or showers, about 20%. Saturday night, it drops back to less than 15%,” said Jessie Smith, a meteorologist at the Melbourne National Weather Service station.
“Rain chances should be pretty low. And cloud cover should be minimal — we’ll have a few clouds, but overall we shouldn’t have overcast clouds like we’ve had recently,” Smith said.
“The winds should start tapering back, too, as Eta shifts away. This weekend, winds should be around 10 to 15 mph,” she said.
‘Mind people’s private property’
“Repeat the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines to social-distance, wear a mask, avoid large crowds where you can. Because we still are very much in a pandemic — and we don’t want to make a bad situation any worse than it already is,” Walker said.
“People need to be patient. They need to leave early, and get to where they want to be early. Because otherwise — if you think you’re going to be here an hour before the launch — you’re going to be stuck in traffic,” he said.
“Mind the rules of the road. Mind people’s private property. Don’t park in front of other people’s houses. Don’t park in front of other people’s driveways. Don’t park in front of businesses that you’re not patronizing,” he said.
Walker said county officials will use the Waze app to provide motorists real-time traffic and parking-area congestion updates. Updates will also be issued on the Brevard County Emergency Management Twitter page and Facebook page.