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NASA chief points to SpaceX crewed launch as a unifying moment for America

Alan Boyle
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, topped by the Crew Dragon capsule, lies in a prone position at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for its final pre-flight checkout. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

President Donald Trump plans to be on hand for Wednesday’s historic test launch of NASA astronauts in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, but NASA’s chief says the achievement transcends partisan lines.

“It’s not just going to unite Republicans and Democrats, it’s going to unite the world,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who was a GOP congressman from Oklahoma before Trump chose him to take the space agency’s top post. “The whole world is going to be watching this particular launch.”

The Falcon 9 rocket launch that will send the Dragon and its crew to the International Space Station will mark the first time humans have gone into orbit from U.S. soil since the space shuttles were retired in 2011. Liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is currently set for 4:33 p.m. ET (1:33 p.m. PT) Wednesday.

During a launch-eve news briefing, Bridenstine paid tribute to previous administrations and administrators who set the commercialization of space operations in low Earth orbit into motion.

The process of developing uncrewed commercial cargo transports for space station resupply began in the mid-2000s during the George W. Bush administration and reached its fruition while Barack Obama was in the White House. The commercial crew program, meanwhile, got up to speed during the Obama administration.

“Here we are all these years later, having success,” Bridenstine said. “I will reiterate that the human spaceflight program under President Trump has really blossomed. Our budgets now are as high as they’ve ever been in nominal dollars.”

Bridenstine also reserved some praise for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He noted that Pelosi worked with NASA last August on an event promoting women in technology as well as the Artemis program, which aims to send astronauts to the lunar surface by as early as 2024.

Over the years, Congress has played a significant role in pushing NASA’s budgets to their current levels. For example, in 2017 and 2019, members of Congress worked in a bipartisan way to head off proposed budget cuts.

A successful, high-profile launch could be just what the country needs right now, said Bridenstine, who drew a parallel to the Apollo moon missions of the 1960s.

“This space program that we have in this country unites people, period,” he said. “It always has. … We think about the Vietnam War in the 1960s, not just the war but the protests. We think about the civil rights abuses and the civil rights protests. The very divisive, challenging times. And here we are all these years later, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and we have this moment in time where we can unite people again. That’s really what this launch is going to do.”

Trump is expected to watch the launch from Kennedy Space Center and make some remarks at NASA’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building. It’s not clear how Trump’s schedule will change if liftoff has to be delayed due to weather or technical issues.

As expected, the outlook for acceptable weather at the launch site was raised from 40 percent to 60 percent in today’s forecast. But that outlook doesn’t account for conditions at sea if an emergency splashdown is required. That part of the forecast will also play a role in making the final go / no-go decision on Wednesday.

One thing’s for sure: It’s all systems go for Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the NASA astronauts who have trained for years to ride the Dragon.

“I texted Bob and Doug yesterday, and 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 said, ‘We’re go for launch.'”

Other highlights from the launch-eve briefing:

  • The final go / no-go decision will be given by a SpaceX launch director with 45 seconds left in the countdown, but NASA managers would have a say in calling a halt if they saw a problem, said Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana. Also, the Falcon 9 rocket is typically programmed to shut down the ignition sequence if it detects anything out of line, even at the last second.
  • Bridenstine said the current plan calls for the next space station contingent, including three more NASA astronauts and a Japanese spaceflier, to be launched on a SpaceX Crew Dragon craft on Aug. 30. If that schedule holds, Bridenstine said Behnken and Hurley would have to finish up their Dragon test mission in time for the craft’s performance to be evaluated and tweaked if necessary before the August launch. Mission managers will also have to pick a return time when the weather is favorable for an Atlantic Ocean splashdown — which can be a tricky issue during the summer’s hurricane season.
  • One of the questions that was asked during the briefing had to do with what the astronauts would have for their launch-day breakfast. In the past, releasing the menu was a staple of pre-launch news coverage, but Cabana said the menu isn’t set in advance. “Astronauts get anything they want for breakfast. … They may not have even decided what they want for breakfast yet tomorrow, so it’s kind of hard to release what you don’t know,” he said.

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