28 May 2020

Nasa ISS mission with SpaceX postponed at last minute by weather

12:10 pm on 28 May 2020

Poor weather has forced SpaceX to call off the launch of Nasa astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken head to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center. NASA will try again on Saturday for the inaugural flight that will be the first manned US soil-launched mission since 2011.

Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images / AFP

The two men were due to go up from the Kennedy Space Center in what would have been the first orbital mission from the US in nine years, but poor weather prompted controllers to call a stop just 16 minutes before lift-off.

The next opportunity for SpaceX and Nasa will come on Saturday, with a third opportunity available on Sunday.

Conditions just an hour after the designated launch time of 16:33 EDT were probably acceptable, but this was an instantaneous launch window where the SpaceX Falcon rocket and its Dragon crew capsule had to leave on time or be unable to catch the space station.

It meant everyone had to stand down, including President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, and VP Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, all of whom had flown in to watch the historic launch.

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump return to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on 27 May, 2020, after visiting Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump return to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on 27 May, 2020, after visiting Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP

"I know there's a lot of disappointment today. The weather got us," reflected Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

"But this was a great day for Nasa and for SpaceX. Our teams worked together in a really impressive way, making good decisions all along. So, let's go; let's go get this done. Saturday is going to be a great day."

There is great interest in this mission. Not since the retirement of the shuttles in 2011 has America been able to launch its own astronauts into space - a big gap in which the US has had to rely on Russian Soyuz vehicles.

Nasa is giving up its past practice of owning and operating the space systems it uses in low-Earth orbit and intends in future simply to buy crew transport services from the private sector - much like a company might outsource its payroll or HR needs.

SpaceX is the first of these new service providers.

Bridenstine believes the approach would save his agency money that could then be spent on missions to the Moon and Mars.

"We envision a future where low-Earth orbit is entirely commercialised, where Nasa is one customer of many customers, where we have numerous providers that are competing on cost, on innovation and safety," he said.

"We are proving out a business model that ultimately will enable us to go to the Moon, this time sustainably. In other words, we're going to go to the Moon to stay."

Wednesday's launch attempt went ahead against the background of the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis.

Crowds were encouraged not to assemble near the Kennedy complex, and Nasa itself severely limited the number of guests invited on to the site.

The astronauts would ordinarily observe a quarantine before flight, but again Nasa reduced the number of people the men could come into contact with, and those that had to get close were instructed to wear masks.

Saturday's opportunity, if taken, will be at 15:22 EDT.

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