2 Astronauts Suit Up For Historic Launch Of SpaceX Rocket

Associated Press
May 30, 2020 - 11:10 am
SpaceX astronauts

(SpaceX via AP)

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Despite more storms in the forecast, two NASA astronauts suited up Saturday for a history-making launch into orbit aboard a rocket ship designed and built by Elon Musk's SpaceX company.

With the flight already delayed three days by bad weather, forecasters put the odds of acceptable conditions at 50-50 for the 3:22 p.m. liftoff of the Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket in what would be the first launch of astronauts into orbit by a private company.

It would also be NASA's first human spaceflight from U.S. soil in nearly a decade.

Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken pulled on their sleek, black-and-white spacesuits with help from technicians wearing masks, gloves and black hoods that made them look like ninjas.

SpaceX and NASA managers monitored the weather not just at Kennedy Space Center but all the way up the Eastern Seaboard and across the North Atlantic to Ireland. Waves and wind need to be within certain limits in case the astronauts have to make an emergency splashdown on the way to orbit.

Their destination is the International Space Station, a 19-hour flight away.

SpaceX
The SpaceX Falcon 9, with Dragon crew capsule on top of the rocket, sits on Launch Pad 39-A, Friday, May 29, 2020, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Two astronauts will fly on the SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station scheduled for launch on Saturday, May 30. For the first time in nearly a decade, astronauts will blast into orbit aboard an American rocket from American soil, a first for a private company. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

“The problem, of course, in Florida in May is there will be thunderstorms. So that's true today as it probably will be every day in May and probably early June here,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told The Associated Press as the countdown clocks hit the 5-hour mark. “We look like we've got about a 50-50 shot here and we're going for it.”

Wednesday's countdown was halted at just under 17 minutes because of the threat of lightning. “Falcon/Dragon are designed to withstand multiple lightning strikes, but we don’t think it would be wise to take this risk,” tweeted Elon Musk, SpaceX's chief executive and founder.

Hurley and Behnken noted Friday that they endured numerous delays on their space shuttle flights, for both technical and weather reasons. Hurley said his first mission was postponed five times over the course of a month. His second mission was NASA's final space shuttle flight in July 2011, the last time astronauts rocketed away from home soil.

Bridenstine said both astronauts have assured him they're “ready to go.”

“I would be lying to you if I told you I wasn't nervous,” Bridenstine told the AP. “We want to do everything we can to minimize the risk, minimize the uncertainty, so that Bob and Doug will be safe.”

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence planned to return for the second launch attempt.

NASA tried to discourage spectators because of the coronavirus outbreak and severely limited the number of employees, visitors and journalists inside Kennedy Space Center. At the center’s newly reopened tourist stop, though, all 4,000 tickets for the launch were snapped up in a few hours.

And by early morning, spectators began lining the area's beaches and roads. Signs along the main beach drag urged “Godspeed.”

Among the spectators was Neil Wight, a machinist from Buffalo, New York, who staked out a view of the launch pad from a park in Titusville.

“It’s pretty historically significant in my book, and a lot of other people’s books. With everything that’s going on in this country right now, it’s important that we do things extraordinary in life,” Wight said. “We’ve been bombarded with doom and gloom for the last six, eight weeks, whatever it is, and this is awesome. It brings a lot of people together.”

NASA hired SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to taxi astronauts to and from the space station, under contracts totaling $7 billion. Both companies launched their crew capsules last year with test dummies. SpaceX's Dragon aced all of its objectives, while Boeing's Starliner capsule ended up in the wrong orbit and almost was destroyed because of multiple software errors.

As a result, the first Starliner flight carrying astronauts isn't expected until next year.

Ever since it retired the space shuttle in 2011, NASA has relied on Russian spaceships launched from Kazakhstan to take U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.

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