On Wednesday, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were supposed to launch to the International Space Station in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. It would have been the first crewed launch from the US in nearly 9 years and the first time that a company launched NASA astronauts on its own rocket. The event was accompanied by the pomp one might expect from such a historic occasion: Kelly Clarkson sang the national anthem remotely from her Montana ranch via NASA’s livestream, Elon Musk held court in the mission firing room, and President Donald Trump flew in from Washington, DC, to deliver a congratulatory speech. But just 17 minutes before liftoff, the mission was scrubbed due to concerns of lightning activity near the launchpad.
Everything you need to know about Blue Origin, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and what actually happens to your body if you go live in space.
Last-minute cancellations are normal in the rocket business, and—with two lives on the line—SpaceX and NASA are being extra cautious for the Demo-2 mission. Although everything functioned perfectly on the rocket and inside the crew capsule, weather conditions along the flightpath fell outside of NASA’s exacting requirements for launch. (The main concern was the possibility of lightning striking the rocket, but the height of the cumulus clouds around the launch site also posed problems.) So on Saturday afternoon, Behnken and Hurley will head to the launchpad to try it all over again, Musk will return to the firing room, and even Trump will return to Florida to give a speech.
The SpaceX Demo-2 mission is the final test before NASA certifies the company’s Crew Dragon capsule for human spaceflight. If it goes well, it will clear the way for SpaceX to begin regularly sending astronauts to the International Space Station. But first the rocket needs to get off the pad—and there’s still a chance that the mission will get scrubbed yet again. During the shuttle era, some missions were delayed for weeks, but this was usually due to hardware problems. During Hurley’s first mission on the space shuttle in 2009, the mission was scrubbed five times before he actually launched due to a combination of problems with the fuel tanks and bad weather.
The team responsible for making the weather call on Saturday is the US Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron, which is headquartered just down the road from Kennedy Space Center at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This elite group of military meteorologists relies on a vast network of sensors—on land, at sea, in the upper atmosphere, and in space—to track weather conditions around the launchpad and on the rocket’s flight path down to the second.
On Saturday, during the last few hours before launch, the Weather Squadron will send about 10 high altitude balloons to the upper atmosphere to check wind conditions. If there’s a lot of cloud cover, they’ll also dispatch a Cessna jet to scope out the clouds from above. If there’s lightning, they’ll monitor around 900 ground stations spread across Cape Canaveral for electrical activity on the ground. Meanwhile, a network of buoys strung like pearls off the Atlantic coast will monitor wave heights to make sure that rescue teams can safely pull the astronauts from water in case of a launch abort. “There are very few other units in Air Force weather that have as much instrumentation as we have out here,” said Air Force Major Emily Graves, who will serve as the squadron’s launch weather operator for Demo-2.
As of Friday morning, there was only a 50 percent chance that the launch will happen, but these predictions can change considerably over the course of just a few hours. “There’s a lot going on, similar to what we were looking at on Wednesday,” Graves told WIRED when asked about Saturday’s forecast. “The launch time has shifted back a bit, so that should help us because typically thunderstorms are in the late afternoon and early evening.” But if Graves and her colleagues find that the weather conditions on Saturday fall outside of NASA’s strict launch requirements, they’ll send their “no go” decision to SpaceX mission control and no one will head to space that day.
For missions that send satellites to orbit, a rocket can launch within a predetermined window that might be anywhere from a few minutes to several hours long. The launch window is mostly determined by the spacecraft’s destination and operating requirements. But having a wide window helps when there’s spotty weather on the ground; if things aren’t looking good at the top of the window, they might be better later on. For instance, Graves says, about 15 minutes after SpaceX scrubbed Wednesday’s flight, weather conditions ended up improving enough for a launch. “We really thought that we were going to have a clearing and just enough time to get it off,” she said. “It was so close.”
So why didn’t they wait? Unlike an uncrewed satellite, any missions to the International Space Station must hit an instantaneous launch window. When a spacecraft is targeting a very specific orbit, such as the one occupied by the space station, it must hit precise launch parameters to make sure it has enough fuel to get to the right place at the right time. A satellite, by contrast, typically just needs to reach its correct orbit, rather than complete a perfectly-timed rendezvous.
That means if the Demo-2 mission can’t launch exactly on time, they won’t launch at all that day.
And even though the space station orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, they can’t just wait an hour and a half and try again. For that, you can blame physics. The ISS makes about 16 Earth orbits each day, and with each orbit, it shifts slightly to the west relative to some point on the ground. This means the ISS passes over the same point on the ground roughly every three days. These consecutive passes are too far apart to launch again the same day, but some passes on the following day are close enough to still accomplish the mission. This is why SpaceX can make a third Demo-2 launch attempt on Sunday if it gets scrubbed Saturday.
Launch scrubs are a pain in the ass, but necessary ones. When WIRED asked NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine during a press conference on Friday about the preparations the agency makes to account for scrubs, he said they take a number of factors into consideration. The Cape Canaveral area is used by the military, NASA, and several rocket companies, which requires close coordination and blocking out reserved times for the launch. But the agency also has to consider more mundane matters like making sure the astronauts have gotten enough rest. “We have to consider the sleep cycles of the crew and make sure that they’re not in the midst of a very critical portion of the flight when they’ve been without sleep for 24 hours,” Bridenstine said.
If the rocket has been loaded with propellant by the time the scrub is called, it results in wasted fuel. This can make a scrub a very expensive event, but Bridenstine declined to offer a ballpark figure for how much it costs the agency each time the Demo-2 mission falls back. For a point of comparison, each of the five scrubs during Hurley’s first shuttle mission cost more than $1 million. But Bridenstine said NASA is focused on safety, not dollars.
“We don’t consider costs,” Bridenstine said. “There is no cost compared to the lives of Bob and Doug—we will do whatever it takes to make sure that they are safe.”
More Great WIRED Stories
- How a Chinese AI giant made chatting—and surveillance—easy
- The confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the hacker who saved the internet
- How do astronauts escape when a space launch goes wrong?
- We’ll learn to sing together when we’re far apart
- The best gear to make your backyard more fun
- ? Is the brain a useful model for AI? Plus: Get the latest AI news
- ??♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers, running gear (including shoes and socks), and best headphones