Falcon 9 and the Dragon Capsule Spacecraft were set to leave Earth from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:33 pm EDT, taking NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station. This would have been the first launch of NASA astronauts from U.S. soil since 2011, but the launch was scrubbed due to weather conditions outside the safety parameters set by NASA for take-off. The mission is historic because it is the first time the U.S. government has teamed up with a private company – Elon Musk’s SpaceX – to send a mission off-world.
The Falcon 9 is a partially reusable two-stage launch vehicle powered by nine cryogenic liquid oxygen burning Merlin engines. Crew Dragon is designed in two parts – a nose cone and a trunk. Older space fans will notice that the cone resembles those from rockets of earlier generations. The trunk of the Dragon attaches the capsule to Falcon 9. The spacecraft is designed to fit up to seven people and is the world’s first “orbital-class reusable rocket.” The Falcon rocket weighs 3.132 million pounds, and SpaceX lists the cost of an average mission at $57M. It is also equipped with a launch escape system to shoot the astronauts away from the rocket and parachute to safety in the Atlantic ocean should things go wrong during the launch.
The entire operation was the brainchild of SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Just a few hours before launch, Musk met with the NASA astronauts saying, “This is a dream come true, I think for me and for everyone at SpaceX.” Then he added, “I didn’t even dream this would come true.”
An hour or so prior to launch, Air Force One touched down at Merritt Island, Florida, carrying the president and first lady. President Trump, who established the new branch of the military known as the Space Force, is a fan of space exploration and was principally responsible for re-igniting the NASA space program.
Experts say the mission begins a new era in the U.S. space program and opens the door to private citizens eventually getting the opportunity to fly into space. This is perhaps why the public-private partnership is so crucial because future space flights will need to be affordable with craft that are at least partially reusable. In the SpaceX company documents, that point is made clear: “SpaceX was founded on the philosophy that simplicity, reliability, and low‐cost are closely coupled.”
Mission Control Houston – which carries such famous lore from past space launches – was largely in monitor mode as the experts at Kennedy prepared Falcon 9 for flight.
The Right Stuff
Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are veteran astronauts, and both are married to astronauts as well. Doug Hurley is the commander of the spacecraft and Bob Behnken is the joint operational commander. Hurley is a former Marine Corps pilot who led two Space Shuttle missions in 2009 and 2011. Behnken has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and is a colonel in the Air Force. He also flew two Space Shuttle missions in 2008 and 2010. Hurley appeared lighthearted before take-off. Five hours before launch, Hurley tweeted his breakfast menu: “Steaks and eggs. Question answered.”
At 20 minutes out, NASA engineers were still concerned that the weather wouldn’t comply with the launch. A final decision was made to scrub the mission at T minus 16:54. The next attempt will be on Saturday, May 30 at 3:22 PM EDT in the afternoon.
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