SpaceX was aiming for a Sunday night launch of four astronauts to the International Space Station, although the prospects of good weather were just 50-50 and the company’s leader, Elon Musk, was sidelined by Covid-19.
If it goes ahead, the launch will be Nasa’s first full-fledged mission sending a crew into orbit aboard a privately owned spacecraft. The company’s newly designed Crew Dragon capsule was set for liftoff at 7:27pm Eastern time (0027 GMT on Monday).
Vice-President Mike Pence was expected at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the long-awaited start of regular crew rotations aboard privately owned and operated capsules. It was also only the second time in nearly a decade that astronauts were set to rocket into orbit from the US.
“Game day!” tweeted Nasa astronaut Mike Hopkins, the crew commander.
The crew led by Hopkins, an air force colonel, includes physicist Shannon Walker and navy commander and rookie astronaut Victor Glover, who will be the first black astronaut to spend an extended period onboard the space station – a full five to six months. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi will become only the third person to rocket into orbit onboard three different kinds of spacecraft.
They named their capsule Resilience, in recognition of all the challenges in 2020, most notably the global pandemic.
Nasa is calling the flight its first “operational” mission for a rocket and crew-vehicle system that was 10 years in the making. It represents a new era of commercially developed spacecraft – owned and operated by a private entity rather than Nasa – for sending Americans into orbit.
“This is the culmination of years of work and effort from a lot of people, and a lot of time,” Benji Reed, SpaceX senior director of human spaceflight programs, told reporters on Friday. “We have built what I would call one of the safest launch vehicles and spacecraft ever.”
The launch was originally planned for Saturday but was moved due to gusty winds, the remnants of Tropical Storm Eta.
Musk disclosed via Twitter that he “most likely” has a moderate case of coronavirus, despite mixed test results. Nasa policy is for anyone testing positive for the virus to quarantine and remain isolated.
Musk remained upbeat. “Astronaut launch today!” he tweeted on Sunday morning, adding that he had symptoms last week but currently felt “pretty normal”.
Representatives for SpaceX did not respond to queries about Musk’s whereabouts.
As the moment of launch approached, the four astronauts made their way to the launch pad in Tesla cars. Nasa tweeted their playlist, which included Phil Collins, Alicia Keys and Lenny Kravitz.
On Sunday Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstein wished the crew “godspeed”.
“Our astronauts have been in quarantine for weeks, and they should not have had contact with anybody,” he said on Friday. “They should be in good shape.”
The launch comes just three months after two Nasa test pilots successfully concluded SpaceX’s first occupied flight of a Dragon crew capsule.
The 50-50 forecast focused only on the local weather for the planned 7.27pm liftoff, not wind or sea conditions up the US east coast or across the North Atlantic to Ireland. Wind and waves need to be within limits in case something goes wrong during the launch and the capsule needs to make an emergency splashdown.
Rough seas prompted SpaceX to bump the launch by a day in order for its booster-landing platform to reach its proper position in the Atlantic. The company plans to reuse the first-stage booster for its next crew launch, next spring.
Nasa turned to private companies to haul cargo and crews to the space station following the 2011 retirement of its space shuttles. The space agency will save millions by no longer needing to buy seats on Russian Soyuz capsules.
Nasa’s other crew transport provider, Boeing, has yet to launch astronauts. The company is still working to overcome software problems following last December’s marred space debut of its Starliner capsule.