SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launch is scrubbed due to weather

The beginning of NASA’s next chapter of space exploration will have to wait until the weekend. Space officials Wednesday postponed the launch of a crewed SpaceX rocket en route to the International Space Station because of problematic weather around Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Fla., and a tropical storm brewing off the coast of the Carolinas.

The early components of Tropical Storm Bertha had battered the Florida Panhandle over the weekend and parked over coastal areas of North and South Carolina on Tuesday and Wednesday, leaving the risk of isolated thunderstorms or pockets of clouds hovering around the rocket’s launch site.

With lightning seen in the area 17 minutes before the scheduled 4:33 p.m., launch time, the flight’s weather officer made the call to “scrub” the flight. The Crew Dragon’s mission, known as Demo-2, operated under an “instantaneous launch window,” or a narrow period during which the International Space Station is lined up with the rocket’s flight trajectory. Any sort of delay would cause the rocket to miss that period.

The mission’s next launch window is scheduled for Saturday at 3:22 p.m., from historic launchpad 39A, the same facility that launched the first astronauts to the moon aboard Apollo 11 in 1969.

The flight would have culminated years of work and the fulfillment of a risky bet by NASA under the Obama administration to entrust the private sector to fly astronauts. For SpaceX, it was the crescendo of an improbable odyssey that began in 2002 when founder and chief executive Elon Musk set out to start a space company.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are both former military pilots who previously had each flown two missions on the space shuttle. Once the spacecraft is launched, it is scheduled to travel to the space station, 240 miles above the Earth. That journey is expected to take about 18 hours. But their ride to space this time will be on a vastly different spacecraft: a fully autonomous, next-generation capsule outfitted with Tesla-like touch screens and temperature controls that allow astronauts to keep the cabin at between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Even with a successful launch, their mission is far from complete. The spacecraft needs to catch up with the space station and match the altitude of the laboratory, which orbits the Earth at 17,500 mph, and dock with it in a risky and carefully choreographed dance.

The mission is a test flight designed to ensure the rocket and spacecraft can fly humans safely. Once complete, NASA and SpaceX will review the data and certify the spacecraft for additional missions that would regularly fly as many as four astronauts to the space station and back.

Below are the updates from Wednesday’s almost-launch.

11:29 p.m.

SpaceX launch scrubbed due to lightning

Lightning was visible near Kennedy Space Center even the night before the scheduled launch. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

NASA’s next chapter will have to wait. Officials postponed the launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 booster 17 minutes before the scheduled launch time because of lightning near Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Fla.

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken began protocols to “scrub” the launch, siphoning the propellants out of the rocket boosters and powering down the space craft. The Dragon mission operates under an “instantaneous launch window,” or a narrow period of time during which atmospheric conditions are amenable for flight.

With remnants of Tropical Storm Bertha in the area, those conditions could not be met, officials concluded. The next launch window is Saturday at 3:22 p.m.

Weather conditions caused the violation of multiple launch conditions, including nearby thunderstorms that were causing lightning strikes to hit a few miles off the coast of the launch site. Conditions were improving as the launch neared, but flight engineers ran out of time before skies would have cleared enough to permit a safe launch.

Weather forecasters work to ensure that the spacecraft would have a low risk of being struck by lightning during its launch and would not be subjected to strong air currents contained in cumulus clouds and the top of thunderstorms, known as anvil clouds.

The technical violation has to do with electrical fields at and above the launch pad, and the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron, which forecasts for launch activities, has specialized instruments to monitor such conditions.

11:11 p.m.

Fueling continues on SpaceX flight as questionable weather swirls

NASA began fueling the Falcon 9 booster at Kennedy Space Center launchpad 39A just before 4 p.m., a major positive step toward launching the rocket and astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley as prohibitive weather swirls in the area.

Propellants are loaded into the two booster components of the Falcon 9 roughly an hour before launch time, slated for 4:33 p.m. But weather conditions continued to appear problematic downrange.

The Crew Dragon mission is operating on an “instantaneous launch window,” or a very narrow period under which conditions are amiable for a launch. Any delay would likely cause the mission to miss the window and force NASA to postpone the flight until another instantaneous launch window at 3:22 p.m.

Officials are following lightning in the area, a prohibitive condition.

11:11 p.m.

Trump, Pence forgo protective masks at SpaceX launch

President Trump and Vice President Pence tour NASA facilities while preparing to witness the launch of the SpaceX rocket Wednesday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

President Trump and Vice President Pence did not wear protective face masks while touring NASA facilities Wednesday before the planned launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule to the International Space Station.

Trump and Pence, joined by first lady Melania Trump and second lady Karen Pence, inspected NASA crew quarters and the Artemis moon-orbiting capsule just after 3 p.m. at the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Fla. NASA officials and flight technicians around them wore protective face masks and practiced social distancing during those tours.

The vice president wore a surgical mask earlier in the day when he greeted astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley after they donned their flight suits and drove to historic launchpad 39A. Pence offered well wishes and spoke briefly with their families.

Germ control is a major priority during crewed space missions even without a global pandemic. Behnken and Hurley quarantined at their homes and at the Johnson Space Center in Houston beginning May 15 so as to not take any pathogens into space with them.

11:05 p.m.

SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk takes full advantage of Dragon launch

Astronaut Doug Hurley puts a mission patch sticker on the windshield of the Tesla that will take him to the launch pad. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk also founded electric carmaker Tesla, and on Wednesday he made sure both of his companies’ products were on display.

When astronauts Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley traveled to the launchpad Wednesday, they made the trip in Tesla Model X vehicles.

It wasn’t the first time Musk had highlighted a Tesla connection with SpaceX launches. For the first launch of the Falcon Heavy booster, the more advanced sibling of the Falcon 9 rocket powering Wednesday’s Crew Dragon mission, it carried a special payload: a ruby red Tesla convertible.

Musk put a mannequin in the Tesla roadster and blasted it off with Falcon Heavy, sending the automobile into orbit.

It was a bit of marketing to go along with SpaceX’s brash announcement to the rest of the aerospace industry that it had arrived.

“Lockheed and Boeing are used to stomping on new companies, and they’ve certainly tried to stomp on us,” Musk once said. “I think we have a shot at prevailing. But we’re certainly a small up-and-comer going against giants.”

Musk hasn’t shied away from using this launch to market both SpaceX and Tesla. The space company’s logo and trademarks are featured prominently throughout the launch site. The flight technicians assisting astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are wearing SpaceX-branded gear from head to toe. Even the astronauts’ flight suits include prominent SpaceX word marks.

Astronauts Doug Hurley, left, and Bob Behnken on their way to the launch pad. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Elon Musk watch as commercial crew astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley leave for historic Launch Complex 39A. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

10:35 p.m.

President Trump arrives at Kennedy Space Center

President Trump has already gotten a good look at the Crew Dragon capsule and the Falcon 9 booster.

Air Force One flew by historic launchpad 39A just before 3 p.m. and landed moments later. Trump and first lady Melania Trump were greeted by Bob Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center, among others, after landing at Cape Canaveral, Fla. The Trumps are scheduled to tour NASA crew quarters and the Artemis capsule, built for a trip around the moon, at Kennedy Space Center.

The Trumps will also receive a briefing on the Crew Dragon’s mission, called Demo-2, and the president will speak after the launch.

Vice President Pence arrived in Florida in advance and had been exchanging pleasantries with the astronauts’ families when astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley emerged and spoke with their families. Pence flashed a thumbs up as the astronauts got inside a white Tesla with a NASA logo on the sides.

The Demo-2 mission and the first manned launch of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will mark the culmination of an effort started by former president Barack Obama.

But a successful launch would be a moment of triumph for the Trump administration, which boasts it is “renewing American leadership in space,” and it would no doubt end up in election-year campaign ads. If something goes wrong, it would be a staggering blow that could send the space agency reeling and jeopardize the White House’s signature mission to return astronauts to the moon by 2024.

To this White House, space holds a special place — as a frontier to explore, a domain that’s been militarized and an opportunity for economic expansion. It has moved aggressively on all fronts, reconstituting the National Space Council with Pence as its chair, speeding up efforts to return to the moon, standing up the new Space Force military branch, and slashing regulations while promoting the growth of a commercial space industry.

Pence has declared American astronauts would reach the lunar surface “by any means necessary.”

President Trump flies over launchpad 39A on Air Force One before landing to attend the launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (Steve Nesius/Reuters)

10:15 p.m.

SpaceX rocket set to launch from historic territory

Crew Dragon will launch from what many in the aerospace industry consider hallowed ground: Kennedy Space Center launchpad 39A.

That was the starting point for Apollo moon missions and space shuttle launches, including the Apollo 11 flight that took astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon in 1969.

SpaceX leased the rights to use the facility in 2014, and it’s become the company’s beachhead for testing the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets as well as its Crew Dragon spacecraft that will carry astronauts to the International Space Station.

“There’s no more sacred real estate in the space community than that launchpad we’ll be flying from,” SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk told The Washington Post.

If Wednesday’s launch is successful, the United States once again will have the ability to launch people to the International Space Station; since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011, American astronauts have had to ride Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the station.

Launchpad 39A will also be the future home of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft, which is designed for voyages to the moon.

9:51 p.m.

Forecasters closely eyeing radar imagery as thunderstorms pass through Cape Canaveral

Danny Verge, left, of Columbia, Tenn., huddles against heavy rain and wind with his daughter Victoria, center, and wife Pam on Wednesday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

A report from NASA television early Wednesday afternoon was optimistic about the weather, noting favorable upper atmosphere conditions for launch as well as few concerns about air or ocean conditions downstream of the launch site.

The major outstanding issue was whether thunderstorms might pass through or come close to the launch area later in the afternoon.

Launch decisions could be made up to 30 minutes before launch. At 12:22 p.m. Wednesday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted the mission was moving forward but weather was being monitored. At 2:05 p.m., weather radar showed showers and thunderstorms, some containing lightning and heavy rain, approaching the Space Coast from the west. A special marine warning was in effect until 3:30 p.m. for coastal waters for heavy showers and storms with wind gusts potentially topping 39 mph.

A tornado warning was even in effect until 2:15 p.m. in north central Brevard County, about 20 miles north of Cape Canaveral. There is a possibility this storm activity will leave the Space Coast by 3 or 3:30 p.m. and that the heaviest of these storms will pass just north of Cape Canaveral. However, some pop-up storms still could follow in the wake of this initial line. While high-resolution forecast models had simulated numerous late afternoon thunderstorms near Cape Canaveral in the morning, early afternoon simulations predicted more somewhat spottier storm activity around the launch time at 4:33 p.m.

9:51 p.m.

Tom Cruise teaming with NASA to film a movie aboard the International Space Station

Actor Tom Cruise reportedly wants to film a movie aboard the International Space Station. (Mark Schiefelbein)

As “Maverick” in the film “Top Gun,” actor Tom Cruise famously said he had “the need — the need for speed.”

Now he’s going to get it.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed Tuesday that the space agency is working with Cruise to film a movie aboard the International Space Station, which whizzes around in Earth orbit at 17,500 mph.

In a tweet, Bridenstine wrote that “NASA is excited to work with @TomCruise on a film aboard the @Space_Station! We need popular media to inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists to make @NASA’s ambitious plans a reality.”

“If we can get Tom Cruise to inspire elementary kids to join the Navy and be a pilot, why can’t we get Tom Cruise to inspire the next Elon Musk?” Bridenstine said Wednesday. “That’s what we need, a new generation of many Elon Musks, and that’s what this launch is about today.”

Added Musk of a Cruise flick filmed in space: “I’d watch that movie.”

A NASA spokesman declined to comment further.

The announcement comes as NASA is working to open up the orbiting laboratory to more commercial interests, and as SpaceX is on the cusp of flying NASA astronauts there from United States soil for the first time since the space shuttle was retired in 2011.

Last year, Bridenstine said the space agency would change its policy prohibiting paying tourists to fly to the space station. Over the years, Russia flew several private citizens there, who reportedly paid millions of dollars for the experience.

Under NASA’s plan, paying customers could fly to the station and stay for up to 30 days at a cost of $35,000 a day.

SpaceX and Boeing, the companies working to develop spacecraft capable of flying crews to the station, have been encouraged to fly private citizens as well. Neither has said how much they would charge for the rides, but estimates have ranged as high as $50 million.

Earlier this year, SpaceX announced it would fly three space tourists to the International Space Station for Axiom Space, a company vying to build a commercial space station.

Bridenstine has pushed to commercialize low Earth orbit, creating more economic interests in space. He has floated the idea of shooting advertisements on the space station and even selling naming rights to rockets and spacecraft the way professional sports stadiums do.

He’s tirelessly pushed to raise NASA’s profile in popular culture, trying to relax rules of astronauts appearing in commercials, for example.

“I’d like to see kids growing up, instead of maybe wanting to be like a professional sports star, I’d like to see them grow up wanting to be a NASA astronaut, or a NASA scientist,” he said in 2018. “I’d like to see, maybe one day, NASA astronauts on the cover of a cereal box, embedded into the American culture.”

9:45 p.m.

Astronauts board Dragon capsule, conduct systems checks; hatch is closed

The hatch on the Dragon capsule has closed.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley entered the Crew Dragon capsule just before 2 p.m., roughly two and a half hours before the scheduled launch.

SpaceX technicians helped the astronauts board the vessel — a process called “ingress” — and strap their custom-fit flight suits into the two center seats of the cabin. Those flight suits plug into Dragon via an “umbilical” chord that controls the garments’ function. The astronauts’ communication lines, heating and cooling air supply and pressurization components are all governed through that input.

Before snapping their helmets closed during a systems check, Hurley cleaned his glasses; Behnken tightened the straps around his shoulders.

Almost 20 minutes after boarding, the seats in the cabin reclined to give Behnken and Hurley a view of the touch screen instruments of the spacecraft. The Dragon capsule is autonomous, but the astronauts can take control of the vessel if something goes wrong.

9:25 p.m.

The latest weather updates as launch nears

A report from NASA TV early Wednesday afternoon was optimistic about weather conditions noting favorable upper atmosphere conditions for the launch of the Crew Dragon capsule and few concerns about air or ocean conditions downstream of the launch site. The outstanding issue is whether thunderstorms might pass through or come close to the launch area later in the afternoon.

Scientists and weather experts are keeping a close eye on the remnants of a storm system that could force NASA to postpone Wednesday’s history-making launch to Saturday or Sunday.

Forecasters said a storm system that battered the Florida panhandle over the weekend and threatened flooding in coastal areas of the Carolinas on Wednesday could leave isolated thunderstorms or pockets of cumulus or anvil clouds hovering around the launch site at the Kennedy Space Center.

Thunderstorms are forecast to erupt along a convergence zone over the Florida Peninsula on Wednesday afternoon as sea breezes from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean meet.

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