It’s been more than 3,000 days—almost nine full years—since a human-capable orbiting spaceship built and launched in the United States last swept back to Earth to return a crew of Americans home safely to their families. The landing of Atlantis on 21 July 2011 to wrap up STS-135, the final voyage of the Space Shuttle Program, marked the end of an era, but few observers seriously expected that almost a decade would pass before a replacement vehicle would again return U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
The long wait was hoped to end at 4:33 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, 27 May, when Demo-2 astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken were due to roar aloft from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, to take SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for an orbital spin and potentially a few months at the sprawling multi-national complex. But running through an exceptionally smooth Launch Day, the attempt was scrubbed at T-16 minutes as the intractable Florida weather refused to co-operate. The next attempt is scheduled for 3:22 p.m. EDT Saturday, 30 May.
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As previously reported by AmericaSpace, Hurley and Behnken’s Falcon 9 booster was rolled from the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) to the pad last Thursday and performed a customary Static Fire Test of its nine Merlin 1D+ first-stage engines on Friday, clearing a significant milestone ahead of flight. Following the smooth completion of the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) and Launch Readiness Review (LRR) milestones—which marked the flight-ready certification of an all-new American human orbital spacecraft for the first time in almost four decades—a final “Go” decision was made and an “instantaneous” T-0 was set for Wednesday 27th. Hurley and Behnken arrived at the Cape last week and have completed a range of tasks, including a full “Dry Dress” rehearsal of their launch-day activities.
Yesterday, SpaceX engineers brought the Falcon 9 from a vertical to a horizontal position to perform additional pre-launch checkouts of the booster, the attached Demo-2 spacecraft and the ground support system, including an inspection of the ground-side chilled water radiator which kept Crew Dragon cool during the countdown. Shortly thereafter, the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) booster was returned to the vertical.
Early this morning, as the skies dawned gray and gloomy over Florida, Flight Director Zeb Scoville tweeted a touching image of the late John Young’s memorial stone and told his followers: “Got a little pep talk this morning from someone who knows a thing or two about first flights. God Speed Captain! We’ve got this.” Young, who died in 2018, is the only U.S. astronaut to have flown the maiden voyages of two brand-new spacecraft types. He was pilot of Gemini 3, alongside Virgil “Gus” Grissom, in March 1965, before later commanding STS-1, the first shuttle flight, with Bob Crippen, in April 1981.
Hurley proudly displayed his breakfast of steak and eggs, a “low-residue” astronaut’s meal which has traced its ancestry right back to the dawn of the U.S. human space program.
Around noon EDT Wednesday, the astronauts received a pre-launch weather briefing. And it was notable that the briefing offered more than a slight nod back at STS-135, for both missions initially faced pessimistic weather forecasts of 30-40-percent favorability, followed by a gradual improvement to around 60 percent on launch day itself. After copious amounts of rain on Florida’s east coast earlier this week, the responsible tropical wave began to drift northeastwards, although the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base cautioned that the risk of “residual moisture” remained and carried the potential to violate Launch Commit Criteria (LCC) of Flight Through Precipitation and the Anvil and Cumulus Cloud Rules. However, the arrival of Tropical Storm Bertha off the South Carolina coast and its steady march inland posed another threat and by 10 a.m. EDT the forecast of acceptable weather by T-0 had fallen to 50-50.
In the “Twitterverse”, the excitement from current and former NASA astronauts was palpable. Dan Tani reflected that there is “nothing more exciting than launch day”, Nick Hague lauding the “dawn of a new era” and Clay Anderson declaring “It’s time, America, to step back into the frontier, U.S.-style!”
Following the weather briefing, the astronauts proceeded to don their customized SpaceX launch and entry suits in the Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout Building. They received a surprise visit in the form of Vice President Mike Pence, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, before departing along the time-hallowed ramp around 1 p.m. The walkout gave Hurley and Behnken a chance to bid farewell to their wives—fellow astronauts Karen Nyberg and Megan McArthur—and exchange “virtual hugs” with their sons.
Arriving at the perimeter of Complex 39 aboard their Tesla Model X, Hurley and Behnken must have felt a pang of familiarity, having launched previously from Pad 39A on four occasions between them during the Space Shuttle Program. Behnken flew two missions in March 2008 and February 2010, whilst Hurley piloted a pair of flights in July 2009 and July 2011, the latter of which marked the final voyage in the 30-year shuttle program. In over five decades of service, Pad 39A has now seen off the crews of all but one of the Apollo lunar expeditions—including Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin on the first mission to land on the Moon—as well as the Skylab space station, 82 shuttle flights, 17 Falcon 9s and three Falcon Heavies. Most recently before today, it served as the staging point for the dramatic In-Flight Abort Test of Crew Dragon in January.
Having ridden the elevator up to the “white room” outside Crew Dragon, the astronauts started their own tradition by adding their signatures to the wall. They were then assisted into their seats aboard the spacecraft and pressed directly into comm checks, with Mission Commander Hurley formally identified as “CDR” and Pilot Behnken as “PLT”. Shortly thereafter, their seats were rotated upwards to position them more comfortably on their backs and closer to the touchscreen instrument panels.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk was asked what he told the astronauts’ children. Touchingly, Mr. Musk told the two young boys that his team had done all they could to bring their dads home safely.
At T-45 minutes, a “Go/No-Go” poll returned a unanimous “Go” to begin loading the Falcon 9 with rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen. Shortly prior to the onset of fueling, the 85-foot-long (25-meter) Crew Access Arm was retracted. The Launch Escape System was armed and Hurley and Behnken closed their helmet visors. And in spite of the intractable weather, fueling got underway at T-35 minutes.
But Wednesday was not to be SpaceX’s or NASA’s day. Hopes that the weather situation might improve to within allowable limits if T-0 was pushed 10 minutes later was impossible, due to the “instantaneous” nature of the launch. As such, at T-16 minutes and 53 seconds, shortly before the onset of liquid oxygen tanking into the Falcon 9 second stage, Wednesday’s attempt was formally scrubbed. “Standing down from launch today,” noted SpaceX in its post-scrub tweet, “due to unfavorable weather in the flight path.” The next available opportunity to fly is at 3:22 p.m. EDT Saturday, 30 May, followed by another attempt at 3:00 p.m. EDT Sunday, 31 May.