Weather Only Potential Spoiler for Demo-2 Launch

Weather Only Potential Spoiler for Demo-2 Launch

If the weather cooperates, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will lift off from Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday afternoon, the first astronauts to launch from American soil since 2011. The Demo-2 crewed flight test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon cleared its Launch Readiness Review today. But the weather could be a problem.  If the launch must be delayed, there are backup opportunities on May 30 and May 31.

The post-Launch Readiness Review briefing was audio only, but it was clear the NASA and SpaceX officials were all smiles.  It was 45th Weather Squadron officer Mike McAleenan who had the gloomy duty of reporting on the weather outlook. After talking about the two inches of rain that had already fallen at Cape Canaveral today, with more coming down, McAleenan said the forecast for Wednesday actually had improved a bit – from a 40 percent “go” probability to 60 percent — but new models are showing the possibility of a tropical low forming.

The weather must be favorable not just at the launch site, but along the flight trajectory as Crew Dragon makes its way up the East Coast and over towards Ireland to reach the 51.6 degree inclination of the International Space Station (ISS).  The launch team must take into account weather conditions in the atmosphere and ocean if something goes wrong while the rocket is at or near the launch pad and a “pad abort” is required, or during ascent and an “in-flight abort” takes place.

McAleenan said “it’ll be a tight balance of where that low goes, exactly how strong it gets, between launch weather versus recovery weather versus abort weather.  So it’s just going to be difficult to try to match all those together.”

Still, “we have some hope for launch day.”   A final go/no-go decision on weather can be made up to 45 minutes before launch.

Behnken and Hurley conducted a “dry dress rehearsal” Saturday where they suited up, were driven to the launch pad in Tesla Model X cars (Elon Musk is the founder both of SpaceX and Tesla), took the elevator up, walked across the futuristic-looking “crew access arm”, and settled into their capsule just as they will on launch day. By tradition, crews name their spacecraft.  Behnken and Hurley said last week they will reveal the name of this one on launch day.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with Crew Dragon for Demo-2 flight. The lighted, horizontal crew access arm is a bridge between the fixed service structure and the crew capsule atop the rocket.  Credit: Space X

NASA commercial crew program manager Kathy Lueders and SpaceX Vice President of Build and Flight Reliability Hans Koenigsmann said today it was an emotional experience for them after all these years of work to know that the next time the astronauts board the spacecraft, it would be for the actual launch.

“I can’t tell you how moving it was for me to see Bob and Doug get in the [Tesla] vehicles and ride out to the pad and realize that the next time was going to be when we were getting ready to launch,” Lueders shared.  Koenigsmann said it was “a little bit of a turning point to see people going into the rocket, that is something special. …. I knew the Dragon was not somewhere in the training center …  it was on the rocket. I feel it had a big impact on everybody.”

NASA ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman said NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and two Russian colleagues, Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, currently aboard ISS are “definitely ready for some company.” The typical ISS crew complement is six.  It takes three just to operate ISS and conduct routine maintenance so science activities, the raison d’être of the space station, have taken a back seat.

NASA Johnson Space Center Deputy Director of Flight Operations Norm Knight said Hurley and Behnken are ready to fly.  They have a few more briefings and medical checks between now and Wednesday, but everything is looking good.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, left, and Bob Behnken, right, wearing SpaceX spacesuits departing the Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building for Launch Complex 39A during a dress rehearsal prior to the Demo-2 mission launch, May 23, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The two have been in quarantine for three weeks as have the support personnel who will help them out to the pad and into the spacecraft as well as family members who are with them now.

Weather permitting, the launch will take place at 4:33:33 pm ET on Wednesday.  President Trump and Vice President Pence, who chairs the White House National Space Council, will be at the launch.

Launch can take place only at certain times when the geographical locations of the launch site and the ISS in its orbit are properly phased.  If the Wednesday launch is delayed, the next chance is May 30 at 3:22 pm ET.  Another backup opportunity is on May 31 at 3:00 pm ET.  McAleenan said as of now the weather looks “much less dynamic” those days.

NASA has not been able to launch anyone to the ISS since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011.  It has been paying Russia to ferry crews back and forth while Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner were in development.  They are “commercial crew” systems developed as public-private partnerships where the companies own the spacecraft and NASA is only a customer.  They must meet contractual requirements to prove the systems are safe for astronauts NASA wants to fly, however.

SpaceX successfully completed an uncrewed flight test of Crew Dragon, Demo-1, in March 2019.  This is the crewed flight test, Demo-2.

The company has launched an uncrewed version of Dragon, Cargo Dragon, to the ISS 20 times over the past 8 years.  The spacecraft have many similarities, but also many differences.  Crew Dragon obviously has life support systems for the astronauts, but also abort systems to separate the spacecraft from the rocket and return the crew safely to Earth if anything goes wrong from launch to orbit. Also, it will dock rather than berth to the ISS.  With berthing, a spacecraft maneuvers close to the ISS and then is captured by the ISS crew using the robotic Canadarm2.  Ground controllers then install the spacecraft onto a port.  In docking, the spacecraft does all the maneuvers and docks without intervention from the ISS crew.  Crew Dragon will do all of that autonomously, although the spacecraft crew can take manual control if necessary.  Hurley and Behnken will do tests of the manual system, but the docking itself will be autonomous.

How long they will remain aboard ISS is undecided.  It depends on several factors, but NASA hopes at least one month and perhaps four.

Hurley was the pilot of the final space shuttle flight, STS-135, so this will be a bookend of sorts for him. The STS-135 crew left a very special flag on ISS to be returned to Earth by the next crew to launch from American soil, so Hurley will be able to bring it home, too.

If all goes well, the first operational flight, Crew-1, will take place this fall carrying three NASA and one Japanese astronaut to ISS.  The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency (ESA).  Under the Intergovernmental Agreement that governs the program, NASA is responsible for getting not only American astronauts, but those from Japan, Canada and Europe, to and from ISS.

Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft has been the only way to get back and forth since 2011.  Dmitri Rogozin, head of Russia’s space state corporation Roscosmos, said today he is looking forward to a successful flight.  In a lengthy interview with Komsomolsksya Pravda, he said “we will be very pleased when an alternative” system appears.

Having two systems provides redundancy, which has benefited the United States greatly both after the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy, when shuttle flights were suspended for more than two years, and since 2011 when the program was terminated.  Throughout it all, Russia’s Soyuz has safely delivered astronauts and cosmonauts to ISS and brought them home again, although there have been a few close calls like the 2018 in-flight launch failure of Soyuz MS-10.

“Of course, we have earned some money” from the United States, Rogozin said, but “it was also a high responsibility.”

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