Stormy weather across Florida’s Space Coast forced SpaceX to call off the long-awaited launch of two astronauts aboard the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, the first piloted flight to orbit from U.S. soil in nearly nine years.
The company plans to make another attempt Saturday, at 3:22:45 p.m. EDT, the next opportunity for a launch into the plane of the International Space Station’s orbit with the proper conditions for a rendezvous and docking.
Another opportunity is available at 3:00:11 p.m. Sunday. An updated forecast from the 45th Weather Squadron at nearby Patrick Air Force Base shows a 60 percent chance of rain, electrical activity and cloud cover Saturday and Sunday that would violate SpaceX launch rules.
Wednesday’s scrub was a frustrating disappointment for astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, who have been training for the past four years to to take off on one of the most anticipated flights in space history — the first piloted launch to orbit of a privately owned and operated spaceship.
But the weather appeared no-go throughout the morning, with occasionally heavy rain and thick cloud cover blanketing Florida’s Space Coast. As the day wore on, conditions improved somewhat but the sky remained cloudy with rain and lightning in the area.
Hoping for the best, Hurley and Behnken donned their pressure suits and headed for the launch pad around 1:20 p.m.
Before departing NASA’s Operations & Checkout Building in white Tesla SUVs, they took a moment to share virtual hugs with their wives, both veteran astronauts, and their sons, 10-year-old Jack Hurley and six-year-old Theodore Behnken, as Vice President Mike Pence and his wife looked on.
After strapping into the Crew Dragon capsule, Hurley and Behnken checked in with flight controllers, tested their pressure suits and monitored the countdown while engineers readied their Falcon 9 for fueling.
Forecasters were hopeful conditions were improve enough to permit a launch and fueling began on time at the T-minus 35-minute mark. But at 4:16 p.m., with the countdown less than 17 minutes from launch, SpaceX mission managers called a scrub.
If they had 10 more minutes, officials said, they would have been “go” for launch. But to rendezvous with the International Space Station, the Falcon 9 had to take off on time. And it was not to be.
“We basically scrubbed due to three rules that we were violating,” a SpaceX controller told the astronauts a few minutes later. “All three would have been expected to clear 10 minutes after our (launch) time. And those three were natural lightning, field mills and the attached anvil.”
Field mills are a measure of the electrical charge in the atmosphere while attached anvils refer to icy cloud tops associated with thunderstorms.
“Yeah, we copy, Jay, we appreciate that update,” Behnken replied. “We could see some raindrops on the windows and figured that whatever it was was too close to the launch pad at the time we needed it not to be. So we appreciate that and understand that everybody’s probably a little bit bummed out.
“It’s just part of the deal,” he added. “Everybody was ready today, and we appreciate that. The ship was great. We’ll do it again, I think, on Saturday.”
“Copy all and yeah, we concur. Appreciate your resilience sitting there in the vehicle for us.””
“We’ve got the easy job,” Hurley said.
“Nothing better than being prime crew on a new spaceship,” someone chimed in.
President Trump, who flew to the spaceport to witness the launch, promised to come back for Saturday’s attempt, tweeting “thank you to @NASA and @SpaceX for their hard work and leadership.”
Despite the historical significance of the mission and widespread public interest, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX founder Elon Musk both said Tuesday they would not hesitate to call off the launch if there were any safety concerns.
Bridenstine repeated that assertion after Wednesday’s scrub.
“I get asked over and over again, is there undue pressure here?” he said. “People say to me, with all of the attention of the world on this launch, with all of the VIPs coming, are you going to feel pressure on this launch?
“And I will tell you, as I’ve told our teams, under no circumstances should anybody feel pressure. If we are not ready to go, we simply do not go. I am proud, so proud of our teams working together to make the right decision in this particular case.”