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Carrying Caltech Alum, SpaceX Tries Again to Launch Historic Manned Flight Today, But Bad Weather Looms

Published on Saturday, May 30, 2020 | 5:47 am
The SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket (left) and NASA astronaut and Caltech alumnus Robert Behnken (Credit: Teslarati and SpaceX/Ashish Sharma)

Hawthorne-based SpaceX will try again Saturday to launch two astronauts — one of whom is Caltech grad Robert Behnken (MS ’93, PhD ’97) — to the International Space Station in what would be the first such launch from American soil in nearly a decade and the first by a private company.

The launch of the Crew Dragon capsule was originally planned for Wednesday, but bad weather in the flight path above Cape Canaveral in Florida caused the mission to be scrubbed just 15 minutes before takeoff.

Weather conditions may not be much better for Saturday’s launch, which is set for 12:22 p.m. California time. If the launch is scrubbed again, SpaceX will try again at noon Sunday.

The mission, dubbed Launch America, is historic: Behnken and fellow astronaut Douglas Hurley will be the first two Americans to take off for space on an American rocket from American soil since the space shuttle program was shuttered in 2011; since that time, spacebound Americans have flown aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Behnken, who earned his Caltech degrees in mechanical engineering, also served as chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office from 2012 to 2015. In 2014, ENGenious—the magazine of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science—spoke with Behnken at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to discuss his journey to becoming an astronaut, the impact that engineers can have on space travel, and the future of human space flight.

President Donald Trump is again expected to be on hand at Cape Canaveral for the launch attempt. He and Vice President Mike Pence were both in Florida for Wednesday attempt, only to see the mission get delayed.

Astronauts Behnken and Hurley will again board the Crew Dragon capsule, which will be propelled into orbit by one of SpaceX’s signature Falcon 9 rockets.

Hurley, a retired Marine Corps colonel, was a pilot on two space shuttle missions.

Earlier this week, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine voiced excitement for the return of American space flight — and its ability to unite a nation that was plunged into economic turmoil by the coronavirus pandemic, and witnessed violent uprisings following the death of a black man during an attempted arrest by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

“This is a unique moment where all of America can take a moment and look at our country do something stunning again, and that is launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Bridenstine said Tuesday.

He added, “This space program that we have in this country unites people, period. It always has. We look at the most divisive times in American history. We think about the Vietnam War, the 1960s, not just the war, but the protests. We think about the civil rights abuses and the civil rights protests. The very divisive, challenging times. And here we are all these years later in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and we have this moment in time where we can unite people again.”

The flight is technically just a demonstration mission, showing the capabilities of the SpaceX Crew Dragon.

When the launch occurs, SpaceX will again attempt to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that lifts the spaceship into orbit by landing it on a barge — dubbed “Of Course I Still Love You” — floating in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX has nearly perfected such recoveries in an effort to reduce costs of future missions.

SpaceX conducted an unmanned test flight of the Crew Dragon capsule in March 2019, sending the spacecraft to the International Space Station with an array of cargo and a mannequin playfully named Ripley, after Sigourney Weaver’s character in the “Alien” film franchise.

The company and its founder, Elon Musk, have dubbed the space station trips a stepping stone for bolder plans, most notably returning to the Moon and ultimately flying crewed missions to Mars.

Ahead of Wednesday’s launch attempt, Musk expressed a slight bit of nervousness about the flight. But he said he was surprised his aerospace company has come so far.

“This is a dream come true, I think for me and everyone at SpaceX,” he said. “This is not something that I ever thought would actually happen. When starting SpaceX in 2002, I really did not think this day would occur. I expected a 90% chance we’d fail to even get to lower-Earth orbit with a small rocket. So if somebody told me in 2002 that I’d be standing here with the NASA administrator, meeting the astronauts and a spacecraft on (launch) pad 39A, the best pad in the world, it’s an honor to be there, I would have thought, man, … no way.”

Once launched, the Crew Dragon with its two occupants will orbit the Earth, with Hurley and Behnken testing flight capabilities of the spaceship, although it is designed to essentially fly itself and autonomously dock with the space station.

It still has not been determined how long the Crew Dragon — and Hurley and Behnken — will remain on the space station before returning to Earth.

NASA Deputy Administrator James Morhard said this week the return of American flight capabilities to the space station is critical to future research.

“Why are we here? We’re here to expand the human condition for all mankind,” he said. “… Right now we’ve got one astronaut on the space station, and when we get the full complement back, we’re going to increase our research up there by 300% and that’s about helping others. That’s why we exist.”

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