NASA and space fans were disappointed Wednesday when the first attempt was called off due to weather. They have waited nearly a decade for this milestone, which will usher in the return of human spaceflight to US soil.
With just minutes left on the countdown clock, officials even suggested on Wednesday that the rocket could have taken off if launch time was just 10 or 20 minutes later.
But that’s not a possibility for this mission, as the astronauts are heading to space to link up with the International Space Station, which orbits about 250 miles above Earth and travels more than 17,000 miles per hour. That means the spacecraft will need to stay on an extremely precise launch schedule.
NASA and SpaceX’s plans could change at any moment between now and Saturday afternoon, depending on how the forecast changes.
It will also require quite a bit of luck. The 45th Space Wing must monitor conditions both at the launch pad and across a broad stretch of the Atlantic Ocean. If the rocket misfires and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule needs to use its emergency abort system to jettison the astronauts to safety, they’ll land in the ocean. And that means officials must ensure that landing won’t be made more dangerous by a severe storm or rough waves, so they scan a massive stretch of the ocean all the way to the coast of Ireland. The team also uses all sorts of instruments, including radars and weather balloons, to ensure that the rocket will have a smooth ride all the way through the upper atmosphere.
One other issue Central Florida is facing: controlling crowds amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Why is this launch so important?
The stakes have never been higher for Elon Musk’s SpaceX. This will mark the first time in history that a commercial aerospace company has carried humans into Earth’s orbit. NASA and space fans have waited nearly a decade for this milestone.
Not to mention, NASA won’t have to ask Russia for rides anymore.
Is it safe to launch during the pandemic?
But according to NASA, it’s both necessary and safe to move forward with this particular mission.
The space agency needs to keep the International Space Station, a giant orbiting laboratory, fully staffed with US astronauts to keep operations running smoothly.
Launch officials and mission controllers will need to gather to support the launch, but they’ve implemented additional safety measures, such as changing control rooms when a new shift begins so that the other room can be deep cleaned.
Where is liftoff and how can I watch?
CNN and other news networks will also be sharing live updates on TV and online.
Who is flying to space?
They work for NASA, but they’ve worked closely with SpaceX and have been trained to fly the Crew Dragon capsule, which will become only the fifth spacecraft design — after the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle vehicles — that NASA has certified as safe enough for humans.
What is Crew Dragon?
It’s a gumdrop-shaped capsule that measures about 13 feet in diameter and is equipped with seven seats and touchscreen controls.
Crew Dragon and the astronauts will ride into orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and the astronauts will board the vehicle the day of launch using an aerial “crew access arm.” After the rocket fires the Crew Dragon into the upper atmosphere, the spacecraft will separate and fire up its own thrusters to begin maneuvering toward the space station.
The Crew Dragon capsule is fully autonomous, so the astronauts will mostly need to just monitor the systems and keep in touch with mission control unless something goes awry.
The astronauts will spend about 19 hours aboard the spacecraft before arriving at the International Space Station.
And yes, the Crew Dragon does have a toilet — just in case. Details about how it works have not been publicized. But one astronaut who worked on the Crew Dragon program said he has seen the design and said the accommodations are “perfectly adequate for that task.”
What is the International Space Station?
The International Space Station has orbited Earth for two decades. The United States and Russia are the station’s primary operators, but 240 astronauts from 19 countries have visited over the years.
What will this cost?
That same report estimates that Crew Dragon seats will cost NASA about $55 million each. But those are estimates based on a contract that doesn’t clearly define the per-seat cost and only accounts for the first six missions.
Is Crew Dragon safe?
Both SpaceX and NASA have had to sign off on Crew Dragon’s development throughout every major testing milestone. And this mission will be no different.
Last week, NASA conducted a “launch readiness review,” which was meant to ensure that all the stakeholders are comfortable moving forward.
Any time a spacecraft leaves Earth there are risks, and there are no perfect measurements for predicting them.
It should also be noted that Crew Dragon’s previous uncrewed trip to space gives it more experience than other US spacecraft had before humans were allowed on board. The Space Shuttle, for instance, was never taken on an uncrewed test drive.
How will this affect the United State’s relationship with Russia?
NASA officials said Russia and Japan, another ISS partner, both joined discussions for a Crew Dragon safety review last week.
How difficult was it for SpaceX to reach this point?
But the vast majority of the 80-plus Falcon 9 missions that SpaceX has launched so far have gone off without a hitch.
Will Crew Dragon make another trip?
One of SpaceX’s main goals is to bring down the costs of launching objects into space by reusing hardware.
Dragon capsules that fly cargo, for example, have been used up to three times.
And since 2015, SpaceX has managed to safely land a Falcon 9’s first-stage booster, the largest part of the rocket that gives the initial thrust at liftoff, dozens of times.
The rocket used for this week’s mission will be brand new, but SpaceX will attempt to recover the rocket’s first-stage rocket booster by landing it on a seafaring drone ship after launch.
Each Crew Dragon spacecraft could also make multiple trips to space, the company has suggested.
Starship is at the core of Musk’s long-term plan for SpaceX: Sending humans to live on Mars.