MASS Watch Party for DM2 launch attempt on May 27, 2020

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. - Carl Sagan

MASS Watch Party for DM2 launch attempt on May 27, 2020

Zoom screenshot

Keith, Hank, Harry and I checked into the Zoom meeting to share our experiences for the launch. Unfortunately, the countdown reached T-17 minutes and it was scrubbed for weather criteria. Electrical potential and cumulus clouds plus another factor were all out of bounds for a successful launch. Ironically, 25 minutes later all the weather criteria went “green” but the launch had an instantaneous time of 3:32 PM on Wednesday, May 27. It has been 3246 days since the last launch of astronauts from American soil, so I can wait another 3 days.

The new launch date and time is Saturday May 30 at 2:22 PM for another attempt. On the first attempt, I watched NASA TV from 11 AM to 5 PM and the new methods of launching astronauts were apparent. Even though SpaceX is using the historic launch pad, LC-39A where NASA launched space shuttles and moon missions, SpaceX has reworked the pad into looking much more modern with the new crew access arm. Procedures are also updated, with the driving of astronauts out to the pad in white Teslas and the launch techs on the pad dressed like ninjas with their head to toe back jumpsuits. I was amazed how roomy the Dragon2 capsule is compared to Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Several of them were able to stand in front of the seated astronauts and help in prepping for launch.

One thing I learned from the NASA coverage was that both astronauts are married to former astronauts. Doug Hurley is married to Karen Nyberg and Doug Behnken is married to Megan McArthur. It was great to see the wives and kids giving the astronauts virtual hugs as they boarded the Teslas.

There was good camera coverage from within the Dragon capsule. Doug Hurley and Doug Behnken were very patient with the weather issues. I was surprised that the go-ahead to fuel the Falcon 9 rocket was given at T-45 minutes. This was the first time astronauts were ever on a rocket being fueled for launch. When the countdown was scrubbed the de-tanking proceeded very quickly and the astronauts were able to exit the capsule at 4:52 PM only an hour and 20 minutes after the scheduled launch time.

One of the reasons for the stringent launch time is SpaceX’s use of densified fuel and oxidizer. They lower the temperature more than any other rocket company so that more quantity can be pumped into the Falcon 9 rocket and give it the necessary performance to put payload into orbit and propulsively return the first stage to a landing. Once this super cooled fuel is aboard the rocket it begins to heat up and boil. The rocket has to vent this pressure to avoid tank rupture. You can also see the water vapor in the humid Florida air condensing around the rocket. SpaceX can’t just hold the countdown because their rocket performance calculations would be inaccurate if too much fuel boils off.

There were plenty of politics with the 747 Air Force One flying just behind the Falcon9 on the launch pad as He who will remain nameless flew into Florida to watch the launch. Vice President Pence was also there with NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine and Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX. Also off camera, was Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. There was no mention how the proposed White House NASA budget has zeroed out the NASA education line item for school out-reach and STEM initiatives. Fortunately, Congress has re-instated that money for the last three years.

To show how serious NASA is about this DM2 launch, they have already set a date for the first operational SpaceX crewed launch, CREW1, with 4 astronauts. August 30, 2020 is the date. This flight will probably be the reason to limit the amount of time that the DM2 crew stays on ISS. NASA has said they could stay anywhere from 30 days to 119 days which is the rated limit of the Dragon2 capsule’s solar arrays. Future Dragon2 capsules will be certified for 210 day stays on ISS. NASA said they would like the DM2 mission to be back on the ground 30 days before CREW1 is launched, so that they can fully certify the systems. That would have DM2 coming down at the end of July, 63 days in orbit if it launches May 30.

While we were waiting for the launch, we discussed a few recent issues. I brought up how Doug Loverro, the recent new NASA head of manned space program, resigned less than a week before the DM2 launch. In his resignation letter he mentioned that he had made a “mistake” and therefore was stepping down. The exact details are unknown but conjecture on the Internet is that he took an action that violated the Procurement Integrity Act. NASA recently awarded contracts to 3 companies, Blue Origin, SpaceX and Dynetics, to develop the details of their manned lunar lander designs by February of 2021. Boeing and another company had their bids rejected. Some comments said that Loverro tried to get Boeing to lower the cost of its bid to make it more competitive. Boeing’s proposal was possibly the simplest and most likely to succeed for a manned lunar landing by 2024 because it used only one rocket launch of the SLS and included only a 2 element lander without the need of the Lunar Gateway. The pressure to try to meet the 2024 timeline might have been the downfall of Loverro.

On a lighter note, Space Force should be debuting on NetFlix on May 29. Steve Carell plays a general in the new branch of the United States military. I’ve heard one humorous story line that includes a mis-typed “tweet” from the Commander-in-Chief” saying that the US will put “boobs on the moon” by 2024. Of course, the correct tweet should have been “boots on the moon”. The humor hits almost too close to reality. I’m a little worried that the US public will think NASA’s lunar efforts are all military and that the return to the moon is just a joke. I’m all for the US return to the moon but I think the 2024 deadline is making us compromise the sustainable and methodical aspect of the effort.

The last topic was the failure of the air launch rocket from Virgin Orbit. Details are sketchy but the “Cosmic Girl” 747 dropped the LaucherOne two-stage liquid rocket at 35,000 ft off the coast of California but only a few seconds after ignition the rocket malfunctioned. The rocket should be capable of putting 880 lbs into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Air launch rockets seem to be losing favor in the launch business. They have the flexibility of being able to launch from anywhere but their small payload and the cheap alternatives of surface rockets is making them unpopular. Virgin Orbit has more rockets under construction and will probably try again to placate investors. Richard Branson’s other company, Virgin Galactic, is still in the process of launching people on sub-orbital flights using his SpaceShipTwo rocket dropped from his White Knight Two plane in New Mexico.