Ready for take­off

With the na­tion watch­ing, NASA, SpaceX set to make his­tory with first as­tro­naut launch in 9 years

Orlando Sentinel - - Front Page - By Cha­beli Car­razana

KENNEDY SPACE CEN­TER — Space is hard. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of in­di­vid­ual pieces put to­gether through years of work by thou­sands of peo­ple across the coun­try have to come to­gether into one care­fully chore­ographed dance.

But when done right, space can be glo­ri­ous.

And as Amer­i­cans turn their eyes to the sky again on Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, that’s what they’ll hope to see: The au­da­cious, we­did-it rum­ble of a rocket claw­ing its way up, all the pieces work­ing in con­cert with each other and two brave as­tro­nauts on­board for the ride.

That is, of course, if the weather doesn’t get in the way. Space is hard, but some­times the weather is harder.

SpaceX and NASA will be con­tend­ing with both as they en­deavor to re­turn Amer­i­can as­tro­nauts to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion on a brand new, Amer­i­can ve­hi­cle built by Elon Musk’s rocket com­pany at 4:33 p.m. — mark­ing only the fifth time in U.S. his­tory that as­tro­nauts have launched on a new space­craft. The launch will ap­pro­pri­ately take off from Kennedy Space Cen­ter’s launch pad 39A, the same that sent hu­man­ity to the moon.

“This is a unique op­por­tu­nity to bring all of Amer­ica to­gether in one mo­ment in time and say, ‘Look at how bright the fu­ture is.’ That’s what this launch is all about,” said NASA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Jim Bri­den­s­tine at a press con­fer­ence Tues­day.

It’s about paving the way for the new era of space, one dom­i­nated by com­mer­cial com­pa­nies like SpaceX and Boe­ing, the other con­trac­tor that has also

built an as­tro­naut-rated space­craft for NASA. The pro­gram, called Com­mer­cial Crew, has been more than a decade in the mak­ing, since be­fore NASA re­tired the space shuttle in 2011, at a time when the coun­try had to be­gin plan­ning for the next ve­hi­cle that would take the U.S. to space.

A U.S. crew hasn’t taken off from Amer­ica in nine years.

En­gi­neer Kevin Vega was around then, as “one of the orig­i­nal crew mem­bers” to join the pro­gram out of KSC work­ing on the in­te­gra­tion of SpaceX’s ve­hi­cle, Crew Dragon, with the com­pany’s rocket, Fal­con 9. NASA en­gi­neer Kath­leen O’Brady has been work­ing on this mis­sion for nearly a decade, too. She helped craft the re­quire­ments that SpaceX had to ful­fill to gain the con­tract and now over­sees cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of the Fal­con 9 for hu­man mis­sions.

Both haven’t had much time off in the past few days. Vega called it less days, and more “one con­tin­u­ous time­frame.”

“We’ve done our safety re­views where we’ve tried to iden­tify and think about the things that could break on the rocket and make sure that doesn’t hap­pen,” O’Brady said. “You’re con­stantly try­ing to stay vig­i­lant — Is there some­thing else you should have done or should have looked at to make the rocket as safe as pos­si­ble for [as­tro­nauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hur­ley]?”

Behnken and Hur­ley, the crew that will in­au­gu­rate Crew Dragon’s first pi­loted mis­sion to space, are close friends who came up through the as­tro­naut corps to­gether, at­tended each other’s wed­dings, mar­ried fel­low as­tro­nauts and are dads two young boys.

On Wed­nes­day, O’Brady plans to watch them take off from a friend’s house in Ti­tusville with her young sons, ages 3 and 7. Vega will be at the con­sole at KSC, wrestling with a wave of emo­tions.

“We are try­ing to keep that con­sole poise and fo­cus,” he said, “and there’s no doubt emo­tions might be run­ning but we have to hold those down and re­ally make sure we are mak­ing the right call and avoid get­ting into the launch fever type of po­si­tion.”

For the engi­neers who have worked on this pro­gram, stay­ing steady and avoid­ing be­ing too brash when there are two lives at stake has been key to weath­er­ing the an­tic­i­pa­tion. Many per­son­ally know Behnken and Hur­ley, who were as­signed to the mis­sions in 2015.

Think­ing about them has re­ally brought home a sense of pur­pose and mag­ni­tude to the team work­ing the launch. SpaceX and NASA got a pre­view of what that would be like over the week­end when the as­tro­nauts ran through a dry dress re­hearsal of launch day prepa­ra­tions.

Hans Koenigs­mann, SpaceX’s vice pres­i­dent of build and flight reli­a­bil­ity, called it a “turn­ing point.”

“When you see peo­ple go­ing into the rocket that is some­thing spe­cial,” Koenigs­mann said dur­ing a press con­fer­ence Mon­day. “I feel I had a big im­pact on ev­ery­body in the con­trol cen­ter and the team back in Hawthorne [where SpaceX is based], too, to see the two as­tro­nauts tak­ing the seats and start work­ing on the panel.”

If all goes well, Behnken and Hur­ley will again go through the mo­tions and end their day in space on Wed­nes­day. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence will be on the Space Coast to watch the launch, with Trump ex­pected to speak fol­low­ing liftoff.

If they launch Wed­nes­day, Behnken and Hur­ley would reach the ISS about a day later on Thurs­day, where they’ll spend be­tween six and 16 weeks.

The weather is 60% fa­vor­able for launch, with the pri­mary con­cerns be­ing cloud cover and rain, ac­cord­ing to the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron.

On Wed­nes­day, the as­tro­nauts will wake at 9 a.m., have break­fast — though NASA won’t say what will be on the menu, only that it’s very good — fol­lowed by a weather brief­ing at noon. They’ll get into their sleek, white SpaceX suits at about 1 p.m. be­fore head­ing out to the pad at 2:30 p.m. in white Tesla Model X’s with the NASA worm logo in the back win­dows and the NASA meat­ball logo on the doors.

The li­cense plate: “ISSBND”

Pro­pel­lant load­ing starts about 45 min­utes be­fore the launch with the crew aboard — a ca­pa­bil­ity SpaceX got NASA to sign off on — at which point a fi­nal call on weather will be made. If the launch is scrubbed at that point or later due to any other is­sue, there are two back-up win­dows: Satur­day at 3:22 p.m. and Sun­day at 3 p.m.

For SpaceX, which was awarded the $2.6 bil­lion con­tract to de­velop Crew Dragon in 2014, the mis­sion — what­ever day it takes off — is a val­i­da­tion of why the com­pany was founded in 2002.

“Ev­ery­thing in our tra­jec­tory is to­ward that par­tic­u­lar mo­ment to launch peo­ple on a space­ship. And it’s a huge step, ob­vi­ously, go­ing from cargo and from even ex­pen­sive cargo and im­por­tant cargo to launch­ing two peo­ple that are dads,” Koenigs­mann said. “You project your­self and you think, you could now be on this rocket, right? You put your­selves in their shoes ba­si­cally, or in their hel­mets, and that changes the equa­tion pretty dra­mat­i­cally.”

Bri­den­s­tine, the NASA Ad­min­is­tra­tor, said he texted the two as­tro­nauts on Mon­day, Me­mo­rial Day.

“I said to them very clearly, ‘If you want me to stop this thing for any rea­son, say so. I will stop it in a heart­beat if you want me to,’” Bri­den­s­tine said.

“They both came back and they said, ‘We’re ‘go’ for launch.’”

JOE BUR­BANK/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

The Space X Demo-2 Fal­con 9 rocket, with the Crew Dragon cap­sule, far left, lies hor­i­zon­tal Tues­day at Kennedy Space Cen­ter.

SPACEX/AP

As­tro­nauts Doug Hur­ley, fore­ground, and Bob Behnken work March 19 in SpaceX’s flight sim­u­la­tor at the Kennedy Space Cen­ter in Cape Canaveral.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.