You may have been watching the build up to the manned launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Wednesday evening. We were! With only an instantaneous launch window available, however, unfortunately that launch was aborted with just under 17 minutes left on the countdown. While the technical checks were all proceeding to plan, the weather conditions were not good enough. It’s a shame that the launch was cancelled at such a late stage, but that means the excitement is still ahead of us! Saturday 30 May presents the next launch window. We will be watching again.
This mission – Crew Dragon Demo-2 – is a milestone for two reasons. It will be the first private commercial orbital manned spaceflight, and it will be the first manned launch from the USA since the Space Shuttle was retired from service in 2011. The launch itself will be from Pad 39A at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center launch facility in Florida. Pad 39A is hallowed ground in space exploration having been the site for launches of the Saturn V rockets for the Apollo program, including many of the missions to the moon, the Space Shuttle program, and more recently SpaceX unmanned flights.
The rocket that will hopefully leave Earth on Saturday is a Falcon 9, the single main booster variant of the SpaceX fleet. The Falcon 9 will carry two NASA astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, in the attached Dragon capsule. The astronauts will take an approximately 24 hour orbital path to their rendezvous with the International Space Station (“ISS”), where the astronauts will stay for up to 4 months. When their stay is complete the two astronauts will return to earth aboard the Dragon capsule. The primary aim of this mission is to verify the Falcon 9 – Dragon system.
Those following SpaceX will know they are one of the leaders in private space exploration. They have goals of a commercially viable, manned and unmanned, space program, with a long term aim of the exploration of Mars. The SpaceX mantra of reusability of vehicles is one mechanism by which they hope to bring down the cost of space travel and to achieve these goals. The technological and engineering prowess on display in Falcon itself is impressive enough, coping as it does with the extreme stresses of space travel and the stringent safety requirements. But being able improve the regularity and reduce the cost of trips to the ISS for example could also lead to more wide-reaching microgravity science at the ISS - including pharmaceutical development, materials science, medicine, and biology to name but a few. A successful mission for Demo-2 will be a major milestone in pursuit of the SpaceX goals and an impressive technological accomplishment.
Saturday’s launch window is at 15:22 EDT, which is 20:22 BST. We will be watching the countdown again, and hopefully the launch, via NASA’s YouTube channel. Excitingly there is also a chance that the rocket may be visible to the naked eye as it ascends into orbit. For those in the UK, look south, low on the horizon 15 to 20 minutes after launch. If conditions are clear, you may be able to see Falcon 9 crossing the sky, west to east, for 3 to 4 minutes.
Fingers crossed for a sunny weekend in Florida and a “go for launch”!
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