When is the launch, and how can I watch it?
On Wednesday, 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 4:33 p.m. Eastern time from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Coverage of the launch on NASA Television will be begin at 12:15 p.m. The Times will also provide a live video of the launch.
But because people are flying to space, the weather has to be good in two places: at the launch site and in the long swath of ocean — along the East Coast and then across the North Atlantic to nearly Ireland — where the astronauts might splash down in an emergency. A tropical storm, Bertha, formed off South Carolina, which might churn up choppy waves in the Atlantic where the capsule would need to be recovered in an emergency.
If the launch is postponed, SpaceX and NASA can try again on Saturday at 3:22 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., with a 60 percent chance of being able to begin the mission on either of those days.
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.
Around 1 p.m., Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley put on their spacesuits. Mr. Musk and NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, each wearing surgical masks and standing a socially distanced six feet from the astronauts, shared some final words with the men, who then began their trip to the launchpad. Around the same time, NASA shared video of Kelly Clarkson performing the national anthem.
Upon arriving, the men paused at the launchpad to take in the javelin-like Falcon 9 rocket, nearly as high as a football field is long. Then, they went up an elevator, made some phone calls to loved ones, crossed a bridge and the astronauts boarded the capsule and, after a series of safety checks, the hatch was closed.
A SpaceX mission controller asked “Are you ready?” One of the astronauts replied, “We are ready.”
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.
What about those spacesuits they’re wearing?
Michael Bay, the director of the 1998 cosmic disaster movie “Armageddon,” once gave an interview discussing the worst crisis in the making of the film.
“Three weeks before our first day of principal photography, I went to see the spacesuits,” he said. “They looked like an Adidas jogging suit on a rack. That’s where I almost killed myself.” Because, he said, if you don’t have “cool” spacesuits, the whole movie is sunk.
Apparently Elon Musk ascribes to the same school of thought.
Or so it seems judging from the white and black launch and re-entry suits the astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will wear when they hop into their white and black Tesla and ride to the Cape Canaveral launchpad to climb into the white and black SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for the maiden voyage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station.
After all, when it comes to capturing the public imagination around space travel, style matters.
“Suits are the charismatic mammals of space hardware,” said Cathleen Lewis, the curator of international space programs and spacesuits at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. “They evoke the human experience.”
Actually, what the SpaceX suits evoke most of all is James Bond’s tuxedo if it were redesigned by Tony Stark as an upgrade for James T. Kirk’s next big adventure. Streamlined, graphic and articulated, the suits are more a part of the pop culture-comic con continuum of space style than the NASA continuum.
When will the astronauts arrive at the space station?
The Crew Dragon is scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station 19 hours after launch, at about 11:39 a.m. Eastern time. That time will allow the astronauts to test how the spacecraft flies and verify that the systems are performing as designed. Unless something goes wrong, the Crew Dragon’s computers usually handle all of the maneuvering and docking procedures.
The astronauts also said they planned to test out the capsule’s toilet.
If the launch is delayed to the weekend, the trip to the space station will take longer, more than 30 hours, because of the orbital path the capsule will need to take to catch up with the space station.
How long will they stay and what will they do?
Originally, Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley were scheduled to stay at the space station for only two weeks. But those plans were made when NASA thought the mission would fly in 2019. With delays in the development of Crew Dragon and another capsule, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, NASA ran out of available seats aboard Russia’s Soyuz capsule to the space station. It now finds itself short-handed there, with only one NASA astronaut, Christopher J. Cassidy, currently on the station with two Russian counterparts.
Thus, Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley are now expected to stay at the station at least a month to help Mr. Cassidy. Mr. Behnken has trained to perform spacewalks, and Mr. Hurley took refresher classes on how to operate the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm.
Why is NASA working with SpaceX on this?
To replace the shuttles, NASA decided to turn to two private companies — SpaceX and Boeing — in essence to produce the rental-car equivalent of spacecraft. NASA would then buy tickets aboard its capsules for the rides to space.
This program has turned out much less expensive than if NASA had developed its own replacement spacecraft, although the capsules have faced many delays on the way to being ready to launch.
NASA under the Trump administration is also hoping to spur more commercial use of the space station, for purposes including tourism. Although the tickets would be expensive, passengers can buy rides to orbit aboard SpaceX’s capsule and may purchase seats on the Boeing capsule once it is ready to fly.
The decision to retire the space shuttles was made in 2004 during the administration of President George W. Bush after the loss of the Columbia shuttle a year earlier. The shuttles were needed to complete construction of the space station. But their engines, heat tiles and aerodynamics made them complex to fly and maintain. Those factors, and the expense of continuing to operate them, led the Bush administration to decide that the money should be directed instead to sending astronauts back to the moon in a program called Constellation.
The space station was completed in 2011, and the shuttles were retired. The Obama administration, however, decided that Constellation was too expensive and canceled it. It then started the commercial crew program that led to the Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner.
How have NASA astronauts been getting to the space station?
Astronauts have been living on the International Space Station continuously for almost 20 years. After the retirement of the shuttles, NASA has had to rely on the Russians for the astronaut transportation, paying tens of millions of dollars for each seat aboard the Soyuz spacecraft.
The Soyuz is based on a model that was first built by the Soviet space program in the 1960s, and the capsule typically flies to and from the space station several times each year. With the start of commercial crew missions, the number of Soyuz flights will likely fall. It has proved a reliable vehicle for human spaceflight, although two astronauts had to make a safe emergency landing in 2018 because of a problem with one of the rocket’s boosters during takeoff.
NASA astronauts are likely to continue flying on Soyuz launches — and Russian astronauts on SpaceX and Boeing missions — so that the crew members are familiar with all of the different systems. However, NASA would then not be paying for Soyuz trips, but instead trading a seat on a Boeing or SpaceX craft for one on a Soyuz.
NASA has urged spectators to stay away from the Kennedy Space Center for Wednesday’s SpaceX launch to limit the spread of the coronavirus. But officials from cities and counties around the launch site, an area known as Florida’s Space Coast, are expecting large crowds.
“When we launch to space from the Kennedy Space Center, it draws huge, huge crowds and that is not right now what we’re trying to do,” he said at a news conference.
But outside Kennedy Space Center, NASA has little control over crowds.
“We are not going to keep the great Americans that want to come watch that from coming here,” Sheriff Ivey said. “If NASA is telling people to not come here and watch the launch, that’s on them. I’m telling people what I believe as an American. And so NASA has got their guidelines, and I got mine.”
Peter Cranis, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism said he expects a couple hundred thousand people to flock to the beaches and parks. More than a dozen beachside hotels — each with several thousand rooms — reported that they were fully booked ahead of the launch, he said. He anticipated Covid-19 might deter some, but many would still come to witness the historic launch.
Don Walker, the communications director of Brevard County Emergency Management, said he is anticipating big crowds on beaches and roadways, and that departmental staff will ask spectators to keep at least six feet of distance.
“Judging from the crowds on Memorial Day weekend, I would say that people are ready to get out,” Mr. Cranis said. “They seem to be very happy to be able to be out.”
Is there any risk of bringing coronavirus to space?
NASA monitors the health of its astronauts, and both NASA and SpaceX have taken care to limit the number of people interacting with the two astronauts.
Two weeks before launch, astronauts go into quarantine, although that is not a strict isolation from all people. For example, in the middle of the quarantine period, Mr. Behnken and Mr. Hurley flew from Houston, where they live and train, to the Kennedy Space Center for the launch. Upon landing, they and Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, answered questions from reporters, albeit with ample distance between them.
The men have also been tested for the virus.
“We’ve been tested at least twice so far,” Mr. Behnken said when asked last week. “And rumor has it we might be tested again before we go. So I think in general, that seems like plenty.”