KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – SpaceX and NASA are now targeting Sunday to launch four astronauts to the International Space Station from Kennedy Space Center due to weather concerns.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed the 24-hour delay Friday afternoon, saying it was because of weather at sea and onshore winds. Should there be a launch abort, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft would shuttle away for a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean, carrying the astronaut crew to safety. There are certain weather criteria that must be met on land for the rocket to launch and at sea in the event of an abort.
Prior to the delay, SpaceX was targeting Saturday evening to launch NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with Japanese Space Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi atop a Falcon 9 rocket in their Dragon spacecraft named Resilience.
The new liftoff time is Sunday at 7:27 p.m. Weather officers with the U.S. Space Force are giving Sunday’s window a 60% chance of favorable liftoff conditions. Cloud cover and possible rain are the main concerns for the launch window.
Weather Officer Arlena Moses, with the 45th Weather Squadron, said Tropical Storm Eta caused the weekend forecast to be “a little uncertain at first” but thankfully Eta moved out to sea. Now the Space Coast is looking forward to a cool front, by Florida standards, Moses joked.
Risks to booster recovery at sea are low, according to the 45th Weather Squadron forecast. SpaceX uses a ship called “Of Course I Still Love You” to land the rocket booster on after flight.
NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich explained the booster recovery is important for this launch because SpaceX plans to use it to fly another group of astronauts next spring, known as the Crew-2 mission.
“For NASA this booster and SpaceX this booster is very important for us. We’re going to reuse the first stage that we’re flying on Crew-1 for the Crew-2 mission, coming up in the springtime," Stich said.
SpaceX senior director of human spaceflight Benji Reed said it came down to getting the drone ship in place in time.
“Because of this tropical storm that we couldn’t get the drone ship to leave in time, and get there and the sea states are such that that we just can’t get the speed up to get there,” Reed said, adding “now we’re going to be getting there in time for plenty of time for a Sunday launch.”
Update: Due to onshore winds and recovery operations, @NASA and @SpaceX are targeting launch of the Crew-1 mission with astronauts to the @Space_Station at 7:27 p.m. EST Sunday, Nov. 15. The first stage booster is planned to be reused to fly astronauts on Crew-2. #LaunchAmerica— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) November 13, 2020
This launch through NASA’s commercial crew program will mark only the second human spaceflight from Florida since 2011.
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken launched on the first Dragon test flight with astronauts to the space station in May and successfully splashed down in August, becoming the first Dragon riders and NASA astronauts to launch from American soil in nine years.
The new launch date and time will place Dragon docking at the space station at 11 p.m. Monday, meaning the astronauts will spend about 27 hours in the spacecraft instead of around 4 hours if they launched Saturday.
Reed said this will actually allow the astronauts to get some sleep whereas they would have been awake through docking with the previous launch date.
“The crew will actually go to sleep in Dragon and wake up and then jump into the rendezvous profile, and, to prepare them to dock for station,” Reed said.
Brevard County Emergency Management posted this video, as it coordinates traffic routes for an expected 250,000 people making their way out to watch the launch:
“Brevard County beaches and parks are prime viewing areas, and people protect you and others by observing CDC guidelines,” said Don Walker, Brevard County Emergency Management communications director.
The Florida Highway Patrol also released this map, showing traffic restrictions set for launch day:
“Please take heed and be aware that a left or right turn on a roadway you might normally take might not be available on launch day to keep traffic delays to a minimum,” Walker added.
Vice President Mike Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence are expected to attend a viewing of the launch on Sunday, according to the Office of the Vice President.
SpaceX Elon Musk is not set to attend the liftoff in person after taking several COVID-19 rapid tests, including two that came back positive. He is now awaiting a PCR test from a laboratory and has mild cold-like symptoms.
NASA Flight Operations deputy manager Norm Knight made it clear Friday evening no one is above the coronavirus safety protocols and no one who does not follow them would have been around the four astronauts.
“No one’s above this access it doesn’t matter if you’re Elon Musk or Jim Bridenstine," he said. "If you have not met those protocols, or any of those protocols have been compromised, then, we’re not going to let you near the crew, and again it is to protect the overall mission that we’re trying to accomplish, and everybody recognizes that.”
If the launch delays again, the crew will try again Wednesday. Monday is not an option because there is a spacewalk planned on the space station.