Updated 6:05 p.m. Eastern with Bridenstine comments.
WASHINGTON — The first human orbital spaceflight from the United States in nearly nine years came within 17 minutes of launch May 27 before weather conditions postponed the launch.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 was scheduled to lift off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 4:33 p.m. Eastern placing a Crew Dragon spacecraft, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board, into orbit.
However, SpaceX launch controllers scrubbed the launch 17 minutes before the liftoff time citing poor weather. Conditions looked unfavorable for much of the day, including a tornado warning issued earlier in the afternoon for a part of Florida that includes KSC. While weather conditions appeared to be trending better, controllers concluded that they would not meet all the launch weather criteria in time. The launch had an instantaneous launch window, meaning any technical or weather issue would postpone the launch.
“We could see some raindrops on the windows,” Hurley said from inside the Crew Dragon spacecraft shortly after the scrub. “We just figured that whatever it was, was too close to the launch pad at the time we needed it not to be.”
“We understand that everybody’s probably a little bit bummed out. It’s just part of the deal,” he continued. “The ship was great, and we’ll do it again, I think, on Saturday.”
The next launch opportunity is May 30 at 3:22 p.m. Eastern, with another May 31 at 3:00 p.m. Eastern. Launch opportunities are governed by orbital mechanics of the International Space Station’s orbit and the capabilities of the Falcon 9, and thus are not available every day. Weather forecasts both days projected a 60% chance of acceptable weather at the launch site.
Among those in attendance at KSC were President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who arrived separately earlier in the day in the hopes of seeing the first crewed orbital launch from the United States since the final shuttle mission, STS-135, in July 2011. Pence was present to see off Behnken and Hurley as they left the operations building at KSC to ride to the launch site.
Trump left KSC immediately after the launch scrub, skipping a planned speech at the center’s Vehicle Assembly Building. However, Trump later tweeted that he would be return for the May 30 launch attempt.
Before the launch scrub, Trump met with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk for a briefing about the mission. “You’re always thinking about this,” Trump said to Musk according to a White House transcript. “You’re thinking about other things, too; you have plenty to think about. But this has been your baby.”
“This is the top focus by far, absolutely,” Musk responded. “In fact, I’ve told my team: It’s not simply the top priority, it is the only priority.”
Bridenstine brought up the perceived pressure on the launch because of the presence of Trump and Pence during brief comments on NASA TV after the launch scrub. “People say to me, ‘With all of the attention of the world on this launch, with all of the VIPs coming, are you going to feel pressure on this launch?’” he recalled. “If we are not ready to go, we simply do not go. I am proud, so proud, of our teams working together to make the right decision in this particular case.”
The astronauts, meanwhile, could not immediately leave the capsule after the scrub, having instead to wait for propellants to be offloaded from the rocket so that crews could return to the pad. “We appreciate your resilience sitting there in the vehicle for us,” launch controllers told the crew.
“There’s nothing better than being prime crew on a new spaceship,” Behnken responded.