KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Amid a worsening pandemic, as many as half a million people are expected to swarm the Space Coast this weekend for a chance to witness SpaceX’s next crewed mission, only the second time in almost a decade that astronauts will have launched from American soil.
The Crew-1 launch of America’s Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi — who for weeks have been quarantining with their families as they complete training — is scheduled for Sunday at 7:27 p.m. from Kennedy Space Center’s 39A launchpad. They’ll take off aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.
After a 27-hour ride in the Crew Dragon capsule they have named Resilience, the four of them will reach the International Space Station for a six-month stay, joining three other astronauts who arrived in October by a Russian Soyuz rocket.
They’re slated to return in April, around the same time NASA and SpaceX plan to send up Crew-2.
The launch was originally scheduled for Saturday evening but delayed for a day after Tropical Storm Eta delayed transporting the drone ship, a floating landing pad of sorts, that will catch the rocket’s reusable booster. SpaceX plans to reuse the booster for the Crew-2 mission.
“For NASA and SpaceX, this booster is very important to us,” said Benji Reed, SpaceX’s senior director for human spaceflight. “Fundamentally, this was an issue of getting the drone ship there in time.”
The postponement means a longer trip inside the capsule of 27 hours instead of eight, said NASA’s commercial crew program manager Steve Stitch. That will give the crew extra time, he said, to see how the spacecraft accommodates four people instead of two, and sleep before docking at the ISS.
If the launch is delayed again, the next opportunity to launch isn’t until Wednesday.
Before the delay, Don Walker, Brevard County’s communications director, said the tourism office “guesstimated” about 250,000 locals and another 250,000 out-of-towners will show up to watch the launch in person. The Titusville Police Department warned of heavy traffic and road closures, including detours southbound for those watching south of Harrison Street and northbound for those north of it.
The Florida Highway Patrol recommended that drivers avoid State Road 528, U.S. Highway 1 and A1A, and instead take State Roads 46, 520, 50 and U.S. Highway 192. Spectators should arrive early, at least a few hours before launch time.
In May, when Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken launched from Kennedy Space Center, ending a nine-year drought without crewed launches from the U.S., NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine urged space fans to watch from home. However, Brevard Sheriff Wayne Ivey encouraged people to come, saying “NASA has got their guidelines and I got mine.”
The result was crowds of people packed into parks, along the beach and across the Max Brewer Bridge in Titusville.
Chief of NASA’s human spaceflight program, Kathy Lueders, said she expects a large turnout again. And while the agency wants “folks to celebrate with us,” she also urged spectators to wear face masks and adhere to social-distancing to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.
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