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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

What you need to know about today's NASA/SpaceX crewed launch

By Phil Plait
The Sun rises on the Crew Dragon atop a Falcon 9 in the shortly before the Demo-2 launch, returning American astronauts to space from American soil. Credit: SpaceX

The last time human beings launched from American soil into Earth orbit was on 8 July 2011 — 8 years, 10 months, and 20 days ago. It's been 3,247 days.

That is planned to change today, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 is scheduled to roar into orbit for the Demo-2 flight, a Crew Dragon atop the 70 meter-high stack, with two astronauts on board: Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

The launch is scheduled for today at 20:33 UTC (4:33PM Eastern US time).

[UPDATE (27 May 20:30 UTC): The launch for today was scrubbed due to weather. The next attempt will be Saturday, 30 May, at 19:22 UTC.]

If all goes well they'll be at the International Space Station in about a day, whereupon the Dragon will dock automatically with ISS at the Harmony module, and Behnken and Hurley will begin work with the Expedition 63 crew already on board. They're scheduled to remain from about 1 to 4 months, returning to Earth for a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean no later than late September.

Artwork of the Crew Dragon on final approach to the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX via Teslarati

Everything related to hardware and wetware (humans, that is) looks good; on 22 May the rocket performed a successful “static fire” test: A full-up test including fueling the rocket and a short propellant burn to make sure all is well.

The flight passed its readiness review on Monday, 25 May, and is go for launch.

The only problem as I write this is weather. A storm system off the coast of Florida has reduced the chances of launching today to 60%. If the launch has to be delayed for any reason a second attempt can be made on Saturday, 30 May at 19:22 UTC (3:22 p.m. Eastern), and a third on Sunday, 31 May at 19:00 UTC (3:00 Eastern). These are instantaneous windows, meaning that if the Falcon doesn't launch right on time, they'll have to wait for the next window, when the orbit of ISS lines up with the launch facility in Florida once again.

The astronaut walkway connecting the launch tower to the Crew Dragon on top a Falcon 9 for Demo-1 in 2019. Credit: SpaceX

There is a lot riding on this mission. When the Space Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis touched down for the last time on 21 July, 2011, the Shuttle Transport System program had already been canceled by President Bush. The Constellation program was started to design and build a replacement vehicle, but was plagued with cost overruns and schedule delays. President Obama canceled that, but there wasn't much to replace it with. NASA wound up saddled with the Space Launch System, which I have been very clear about as a gross waste of time, money, and effort — it will cost at least a billion bucks to launch (and that's not including the many billions spent designing it), is non-reusable, and is basically a jobs and pork program by certain members of the Senate.

During the gap in America's ability to launch a crewed mission, we've had to rely on the Russian Soyuz rocket, and they have been price-gouging NASA for some time. But they recently lowered their prices, announcing it in a somewhat petulant manner to my ear. Why? Because of SpaceX.

When the private space company SpaceX started up it had many problems — getting to space is hard — but step-by-step they've made progress, amazing progress. Their first rocket, the Falcon 1, had three failed launches before achieving orbit in 2008. Since that time the Falcon 9 has had 83 launches, including 31 reflown rockets after the first stage booster had returned to Earth. The Falcon Heavy has launched three times, all successfully. In 2012 the first Dragon capsule berthed with the ISS, and has been back up a score of times, with several capsules reflown to space, some more than once.

The Demo-1 flight was in 2019, with the unoccupied Crew Dragon launched and successfully docking with ISS. Now, a year later — after delays, to be sure — Demo-2 is ready to fly.

When it does, and if it's successful, it will mean astronauts can once again launch on American-built vehicles from American soil. A source of pride? Certainly. But it will also save NASA a ton of money. SLS and the Orion capsule have already cost about $40 billion (2020 dollars), and it's unclear when they will launch humans. Falcon and Dragon have cost a fraction of that, and going into the future will cost far less per flight, too.

The SpaceX Demo-2 astronauts (Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley, right) in front of their Crew Dragon capsule. Credit: NASA

I've thought about this gap in American human spaceflight, mostly in terms of history. After the Skylab 4 mission, which splashed down on 8 February, 1974, it was little over seven years before the US launched people again on the first Space Shuttle flight. [Correction (27 May, 2020 at 15:00 UTC): Skylab 4 was not the last crewed American mission; the Apollo-Soyuz mission was, which launched on 15 July 1975. My apologies for the error, and my thanks to Stefan Barensky for pointing it out.] At the time that seemed interminable… but who recalls it now? The Shuttle flight was itself historic, of course, but four decades later that gap is more of a footnote in spaceflight history.

The first flight of a crewed Dragon is historic as well. But I wonder if, in a few decades time, the gap will seem more incidental than influential. A political failing that slowed but did not stop the urge to explore space.

The Sun rises on the Crew Dragon atop a Falcon 9 in the shortly before the Demo-2 launch, returning American astronauts to space from American soil. Credit: SpaceX

Mind you, the next flight of the Dragon with astronauts on board, called the Crew-1 mission, is scheduled for 30 August. That's just three months from now. Clearly NASA is confident about this demo flight, but it also shows that flights to space may become a lot more common in the near future. Once Boeing's Starliner starts flying as well we'll see what the future of crewed spaceflight really is.

Oh, and incidentally, that last flight of Atlantis in 2011? The pilot was Doug Hurley. He is literally spanning the gap in US human spaceflight, a single human bridge across the years that brings all of humanity a step closer to being a space-faring species.

May they have clear skies and a smooth ride to orbit. Ad astra.

You can watch the launch live at these streams:

  • SpaceX
  • PBS
  • The Discovery and Science Channels will also be covering it live.