When is the launch, and how can I watch it?
On Saturday, for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles in July 2011, NASA astronauts are scheduled to blast off from American soil on an American rocket to the International Space Station. In contrast to astronaut launches in the past when NASA ran the show, this time a private company, SpaceX, will be in charge of mission control. The company, founded by Elon Musk, built the Falcon 9 rocket and the capsule, Crew Dragon, which the two astronauts will travel in.
The mission is scheduled to lift off at 3:22 p.m. Eastern time from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Coverage of the launch on NASA Television will begin at 11 a.m. The Times will provide live video of the launch.
Lifting off in bad weather can be catastrophic to rockets. During the countdown, about 10 members of the 45th Weather Squadron, part of the United States Space Force, keep a close eye on conditions to see if they fall within predetermined launch criteria. If the weather conditions violate the criteria, SpaceX’s launch director will call off the launch.
The biggest concern is lightning — a bolt of electricity can zap crucial electronics, leading to loss of the rocket.
Rules prohibit launches for 30 minutes after lightning is observed within a dozen miles of the launchpad or along the trajectory the rocket will fly.
There is danger even when no lightning is flashing in the sky. As a rocket zooms through a turbulent cloud full of electric charge, it can trigger a lightning strike. That is essentially the same thing as when you zap yourself with static electricity.
Such a lightning bolt occurred during the launch of the Apollo 12 moon mission in 1969. One of the engineers in mission control remembered there was a switch that essentially rebooted the computer. The astronauts flipped it, and the mission successfully continued.
After Apollo 12, new launch rules were added specifying the minimum distance of various types of thunderstorm clouds from the launchpad.
For the Crew Dragon launch, SpaceX also wants the rocket not to pass through precipitation — especially pellets of ice — as it accelerates upward.
On Wednesday, when the SpaceX launch was called off before liftoff, two of the prohibited clouds were over the launchpad: cumulus clouds and “attached anvil” clouds, both of which can generate lightning. The “no precipitation” rule was also violated.
The launch team had not called off the countdown earlier, because it had appeared that the clouds would move away in time. But convection in the atmosphere generated more storm activity and that meant the unsettled weather remained over the launchpad longer.
Fifteen minutes after the scheduled launch time, “we were good,” said Mike McAleenan, the launch weather officer.
But the launch had to occur at a precise moment to allow the Crew Dragon to meet up with the space station, and there is no leeway for delays.
For the safety of the crew, the launch team also has to consider weather and ocean conditions just off the coast, where the capsule would splash down if there were an emergency on the launchpad or farther away in the Atlantic if a problem occurred on the way to orbit.
They both have backgrounds as military test pilots and have each flown twice previously on space shuttle missions, although this is the first time they have worked together on a mission. Mr. Hurley flew on the space shuttle’s final mission in 2011.
In 2015, they were among the astronauts chosen to work with Boeing and SpaceX on the commercial space vehicles that the companies were developing. In 2018, they were assigned to the first SpaceX flight.
What are they flying in?
SpaceX has never taken people to space before. Its Crew Dragon is a gumdrop-shaped capsule — an upgraded version of SpaceX’s original Dragon capsule, which has been used many times to carry cargo, but not people, to the space station.
Crew Dragon has space for up to seven people but will have only four seats for NASA missions. If this launch succeeds, it will ferry four astronauts to the space station later in the year.
Shrugging off coronavirus, Florida crowds will grow.
Despite warnings from NASA to stay home to limit the spread of the coronavirus, about 150,000 people came out to view the launch on Wednesday in the parts of Florida around Kennedy Space Center. Peter Cranis, the executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, which made that estimate, said he’s expecting another few hundred thousand viewers this weekend.
Local government officials also anticipated Saturday’s crowds will swamp Wednesday’s numbers.
“Thousands, tens of thousands, heck, hundreds of thousands? There’s just no way to put a number to it,” said Don Walker, the communications director of Brevard County Emergency Management.
The Kennedy Space Center was not open to the public on Wednesday, but its visitor center will be partially opened on Saturday, Bob Cabana, the center’s director, said at a news conference on Friday.
Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said guests were to observe social distancing guidelines on the agency’s grounds.
“What we expect is that when people come here, they follow the guidance of the governor.”
Following scenes of packed bridges on Wednesday, Mr. Walker said there will be increased law enforcement presence this weekend.
“While there’s no real way to enforce it, we have asked people through media interviews, press releases, social media, you name it, to do their best to follow C.D.C. social distancing recommendations,” he said.
Ben Malik, the mayor of Cocoa Beach, south of the space center, said his town’s beach was packed on Wednesday and that its hotels are fully booked this weekend.
“There was little to no social distancing on Wednesday,” Mr. Malik said. “It was a little scary. At this point, you’d have to have thousands and thousands of police officers and that’s not physically possible.”