Launch officials announced at 4:17 p.m. Wednesday that rough weather would prevent a SpaceX rocket and capsule from taking off from a Florida launch pad, carrying NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on the first crewed spaceflight to take off from US soil in nearly a decade.
There was a 50% chance the flight would be “scrubbed,” or postponed, due to weather as of Wednesday morning. Rain along the flight path and developing afternoon thunderstorms in the vicinity were the main concerns for the launch, as Florida has faced heavy rain from a tropical disturbance for the last several days.
In case any issues were to arise with the rocket after liftoff, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule has the ability to break away from the rocket and fly the astronauts to safety. But to make sure they’ll have a safe splashdown, SpaceX must monitor the weather conditions through a broad swath of the Atlantic Ocean to prepare for any possible abort scenario.
The 45th Space Wing, an arm of the military that oversees all East Coast rocket launches, monitors the weather and shares its information with NASA and SpaceX.
The launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is planned to move forward over the weekend despite the Covid-19 pandemic, which has shuttered both private and government operations across the US. NASA says it must carry on with the mission in order to keep the International Space Station, a giant orbiting laboratory, fully staffed with US astronauts.
The space agency’s top official, Jim Bridenstine, also said he hopes this launch will inspire awe and uplift the general public during the ongoing health crisis.
On the ground in Florida, local authorities were bracing for an expected influx of spectators who were expected to gather on nearby beaches, which were recently reopened after weeks of lockdown amid the battle against Covid-19. But NASA did not welcome any visitors to the launch site. A few dozen journalists were permitted to cover the launch from the press area at Kennedy Space Center, but strict social distancing policies and guidelines around wearing masks were implemented. Bridenstine held most briefings by telephone, for instance, and in-person interviews were conducted one-by-one with news crews.
The launch is also intended to serve as a sort of litmus test for NASA’s push to partner more extensively with the private sector.
SpaceX developed Crew Dragon under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which, for the first time in the space agency’s history, handed over much of the design, development and testing of new human-rated spacecraft to the private sector. NASA awarded SpaceX and Boeing fixed-price contracts to get the job done, but that decision wasn’t without controversy, particularly in the Commercial Crew Program’s early days. But if the SpaceX flight is a success, it could be seen as a huge win for people at NASA who hope to rely more extensively on similar contracts to help accomplish the space agency’s goals.
Bridenstine, for example, hopes to rely heavily on private-sector partnerships to accomplish the space agency’s ambitious goal of landing US astronauts on the moon in 2024.
“Ultimately, what we’re trying to achieve is having numerous providers that are competing against each other on costs, innovation and safety. And then NASA can be a customer, one customer of many customers, and we already know that this will save a ton of money over the long term,” Bridenstine told CNN Business’ Rachel Crane.