At 7:27 p.m. Eastern time tonight, SpaceX is scheduled to launch four astronauts to the International Space Station from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On board the SpaceX spacecraft waiting for liftoff are three NASA astronauts, Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover, as well as a Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi.
A successful launch will mark another step in NASA’s plans to turn spaceflight duties over to private enterprise. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is the first privately owned and operated spacecraft to be certified by NASA for human spaceflight, a certification SpaceX received only days ago.
The launch would also mark a coming-of-age moment for SpaceX, the California company founded by Elon Musk that was once viewed as a maverick start-up but is now one of the space industry’s stalwarts and one of NASA’s most significant partners, delivering both cargo and now astronauts to the space station.
If all goes according to plan, the four astronauts aboard the capsule should reach the space station at about 11 p.m. Monday.
What to know
6:05 PM: The ‘Times Square’ of space real estate, updated by SpaceX
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Elon Musk has called the launchpad SpaceX is using tonight the “Times Square” of spaceflight real estate, a sacrosanct piece of land on the Florida Space Coast with a long and rich history.
Launchpad 39A is where many of the Apollo missions lifted off, including Apollo 11, whose crew members Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the moon’s surface in 1969 (the third member of the crew, Michael Collins, orbited the moon during their trip to the surface).
Launchpad 39A was also where many space shuttle missions took off. But after NASA retired the space shuttle, it sat dormant, rusting away in the salt air.
In 2014, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease for the pad and has been flying its Falcon 9 rockets from there since. Over the years, the company has renovated it extensively, giving it a sleek arm that the astronauts walk down to board their spacecraft. The launch tower is now black and white, mimicking the color of the rocket and the spacesuits the astronauts wear.
“I think it’s a great honor, and I have incredible respect for the hallowed ground that it is,” Musk said in an interview in 2016. “I would have never imagined that we would have the same opportunity to launch from the same launchpad as Apollo 11.”
By: Christian Davenport
5:54 PM: Why the launch was moved to Sunday
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Delays in launches are not unusual. SpaceX’s test launch in May also was delayed for inclement weather.
But the decision to move this launch from Saturday to Sunday evening was somewhat unusual because the forecast high winds and rough seas weren’t expected to affect the launch itself, but SpaceX’s ability to recover the first-stage booster of the Falcon 9 rocket, which is supposed to land on an autonomous ship in the Atlantic Ocean after it separates from the remainder of the rocket.
This booster is particularly important because SpaceX intends to use it for its next flight of astronauts, the Crew-2 mission, now scheduled for March 30.
The March flight would mark the first time NASA has allowed a crew to launch on a booster that had flown previously.
SpaceX has made an art out of landing boosters. Traditionally, rocket first stages were ditched into the ocean after propelling a payload to orbit. But SpaceX for five years has been flying its boosters back to Earth, landing them either on a ship at sea or on land. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said that having reusable rockets is a key step toward lowering the cost of space travel, which in turn could make it more accessible.
By: Christian Davenport
5:40 PM: Weather looks good for tonight’s SpaceX launch
Early Sunday evening, weather conditions around Cape Canaveral seemed favorable for launch.
Skies featured just scattered clouds, while winds were light with temperatures in the 70s.
The National Weather Service forecast for the evening indicated a 30 percent chance of showers through midnight. Radar showed widely scattered showers 30 to 45 miles inland drifting slowly toward the coast, but nothing appeared terribly ominous.
The Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron, which provides official launch forecasts, wrote early Sunday that there was a 50 percent chance weather conditions would prevent liftoff, based on the potential for showers, lightning and tall clouds in the area.
By: Jason Samenow
5:33 PM: Vice President Pence scheduled to attend SpaceX launch
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Vice President Pence’s office said he would attend SpaceX’s Crew-1 launch Sunday evening with his wife, Karen.
Pence, a space enthusiast, is chairman of the National Space Council, which was resurrected under the Trump administration.
The White House has made space a priority, pushing NASA to speed up its timeline to return astronauts to the moon under the Artemis program. Initially, NASA was planning on flying people there by 2028, but the White House directed the space agency to do it by 2024.
The space council also has overseen NASA’s “commercial crew program” — of which Sunday’s SpaceX launch is part — to restore human spaceflight from United States soil, a program that began under the Obama administration.
Both Trump and Pence were at the Kennedy Space Center for SpaceX’s test flight in May, the first flight of NASA astronauts from U.S. soil since the space shuttle was retired in 2011.
Pence’s visit comes as President Trump continues to refuse to concede the election, and as the coronavirus surges through much of the country. Pence, who is also the head of the White House coronavirus task force, has said little publicly since the election.
By: Christian Davenport
5:16 PM: Who’s on board the SpaceX Crew-1 mission?
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — If there’s any hesitation from the crew about the risky adventure of SpaceX’s Crew-1 mission, it’s well hidden.
The quartet of astronauts — three from NASA and one from Japan that make up what NASA calls Crew-1 — exudes optimism and camaraderie. They even have a motto, as if they were a merry band of musketeers: “All for one, Crew-1 for all.”
If their launch, now scheduled for 7:27 p.m. today, is successful, it would be another coup for the space agency, which has been on a roll recently, providing dashes of good news in a year that has seen very little.
The Crew-1 crew is a roll call of NASA’s best:
Mike Hopkins is the commander. He applied to be an astronaut four times before being selected in 2009. Since then, the Air Force colonel has flown to the space station on a Russian Soyuz rocket. Hopkins was previously a crew member of Expedition 37/38 on the International Space Station and has spent 166 days in space. In 2013, as part of his stay at the International Space Station, he logged nearly 13 hours of spacewalks. Hopkins, 55, is from Lebanon, Mo.
Shannon Walker was selected to be an astronaut in 2004 after working closely with NASA, first as a robotics flight controller with avionics firm Rockwell Collins. In 1995, she joined NASA, working on the space station program. She launched to the station on a Soyuz in 2010. She previously completed a mission to the ISS that lasted 163 days, in 2010, as flight engineer for Expedition 24/25. Walker’s husband, Andy Thomas, is also an astronaut. Walker, 55, is from Houston, Texas.
Victor Glover is the rookie. He has never been to space. A former Navy pilot who flew F/A-18 Hornets, he has logged 3,000 flight hours in more than 40 aircraft, completing 24 combat missions and 400 “carrier arrested” landings. NASA selected him as part of their 2013 astronaut class. Glover, 44, who will serve as the mission’s pilot, hails from Pomona, Calif.
The Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi, has flown to space twice, including on the first space shuttle mission after the 2003 Columbia disaster. He flew inside the space shuttle Discovery in 2005 and will be the first non-American to fly on a mission launched by SpaceX. Noguchi previously launched in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the ISS for a mission that lasted 161 days in 2009 and 2010. The veteran astronaut is 55 years old and was born in Yokohama, Japan.
By: Christian Davenport and Hamza Shaban
5:08 PM: Astronauts are aboard the capsule and have begun final preparations for liftoff
The four astronauts of the historic SpaceX mission have boarded the Crew Dragon Capsule, the spacecraft that will soon take them to the International Space Station.
Just after 4 p.m., the crew members walked out of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and waved goodbye to their families before they were were transported to Launch Complex 39A, where the schedule called for them to lift off at 7:27 p.m. Eastern time.
After the crew members arrived at the launch pad and entered the capsule, they began a host of equipment checks in final preparation before they close the hatch, including checking their communications, verifying they’re ready for seat rotation, and checking for suit leaks.
As they finished strapping into their seats, NASA reported that all systems are “go” and that the weather continues to be acceptable for launch.
By: Hamza Shaban
5:04 PM: And the next mission is already planned
The Crew-1 mission hasn’t begun yet, but SpaceX and NASA are already looking ahead to SpaceX’s next human spaceflight: Crew-2.
Now scheduled for March, it would be the second operational mission of NASA’s commercial crew program, with a full contingent of four: NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and Thomas Pesquet, of France, who would represent the European Space Agency.
McArthur is married to NASA astronaut Bob Behnken, who made history this year when he flew on SpaceX’s first crewed mission, a test flight to the International Space Station that was the first NASA human spaceflight mission launched from U.S. soil since the space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011.
By: Christian Davenport