SpaceX Launch: Highlights From the Weather-Delayed Mission

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michael barbaro

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”

[music]

Today: For the first time in history, a private company is sending astronauts into space. Science reporter Kenneth Chang on the dawn of a new era in space travel.

It’s Thursday, May 28.

Ken, how many space launches have you covered in your career?

kenneth chang

I’ve forgotten. Because I started covering these at the end of the space shuttle era. So it was probably five or six then. And there was a few other scattered ones. And I’ve actually made more trips than that. Because especially with the space shuttle, they would postpone the launch at the last second a gazillion times. So I would just fly in in, fly out, fly in, fly out, and not even see a launch.

michael barbaro

But if you had to guess, how many fly-ins and fly-outs have you made to try to watch a space launch?

kenneth chang

Oh, I’d say 20.

michael barbaro

[LAUGHS] That’s a lot.

kenneth chang

Yeah.

michael barbaro

And that’s where you are right now, when we say fly in, fly out, you are “in” at the moment.

kenneth chang

I am in. I’m actually currently in a Hampton Inn in Titusville, which is 20 minutes from the Kennedy Space Center.

michael barbaro

Give me the scene there in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center. I know you’re not there, but you’re soon to be there. What’s it look like right now?

kenneth chang

So because of the coronavirus, NASA’s basically limiting the number of people there. The visitor’s center, where the public usually gathers for the launch, is closed. So when I go there, I’ll get to watch it. But I’ll be outside the whole time and with a mask and at least six feet away from everyone else.

michael barbaro

So Ken, at this point, it’s about 1:20 p.m. Where are we in the countdown for today’s launch?

kenneth chang

So the astronauts have put on their space suits. They’re about ready to get in a car to drive to the launch pad. And this is part of what’s really different about this launch versus what’s happened in past years from the Kennedy Space Center. In the past, it was NASA having the space shuttle and such. This time, it is a private company, one called SpaceX that was founded by Elon Musk, the billionaire who also operates Tesla, which is a company that makes electric cars.

michael barbaro

So what’s happening where you are in Florida on Wednesday is that a private company is putting NASA astronauts into space on a privately owned vessel?

kenneth chang

Yes. And this has never been done before. If you think, there’s been three countries that have sent people to space: the United States, the former Soviet Union and now Russia, and China. And now you have this small company called SpaceX, which I guess is not so small anymore. But it is now joining these big nations to do something that’s really hard.

michael barbaro

Ken, when I think of the space program, I think of it as the pride and joy of the United States. And I think of it first and foremost as a federal government program, NASA. So how did we get to this point where a private company has more or less supplanted NASA in sending astronauts into space?

kenneth chang

So of course, at the beginning of the space era, you think of Sputnik.

archived recording

[RADIO SIGNAL BEEPING] Until two days ago, that sound had never been heard on this Earth. It’s a report from man’s farthest frontier —

kenneth chang

The Soviets sent a satellite up before the great, mighty United States did.

archived recording

— a radio signal transmitted by the Soviet Sputnik, the first manmade satellite as it passed over New York earlier today.

kenneth chang

This spurred, of course, a lot of fear and worry in the United States.

archived recording

Is it possible that it is transmitting a code, not just a beep signal for radio listening? Yes, it’s quite possible that it’s transmitting a code.

kenneth chang

So the United States started a major space program and created NASA to do things that would counter what the Soviet Unions were doing.

archived recording

The space age had begun.

kenneth chang

And so the first space missions, you just think of —

archived recording

Shepard himself had been hauled up into the helicopter.

kenneth chang

— you think of Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space.

archived recording (john glenn)

Roger —

kenneth chang

John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.

archived recording (john glenn)

A little bumpy along about here.

kenneth chang

And each of these baby steps that led to Apollo.

archived recording (neil armstrong)

Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

kenneth chang

And of course, Neil Armstrong walking on the surface of the moon.

archived recording (neil armstrong)

That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

kenneth chang

These were all events tied up in the identity of the United States as a nation.

archived recording (richard nixon)

This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the creation. The world is bigger, infinitely. I only hope that all of us in government, all of us in America, we can reach for the stars just as you have reached so far for the stars.

kenneth chang

And so that was the mentality that drove the space program through the ‘60s into the early ‘70s. And then after that, it was a transition to try to figure out what to do. Once we’ve gotten to the moon, how do we get to the next step?

So NASA basically came up with three options to present to President Nixon. You could go for broke, you could start planning to go to Mars. Or you could build a space station and a space shuttle to go to the space station. Or you could just build a space shuttle. And Nixon chose just to build the space shuttle. That was the cheapest that he was willing to invest in. And so because the space shuttle did not have a space station to go to, it had to serve other purposes. One of them was that the military wanted to use it to launch spy satellites. Other people want to use it to run science experiments in orbit. And so this sort of became this pickup truck that was supposed to do all these different chores for different parts of the federal government. It ended up being a technological marvel that was not great at doing any one particular task.

archived recording

8, 7, 6, 5.

kenneth chang

I mean, with the space shuttle, if you think about the launch, if you watch one, it was an amazing sight.

archived recording

2, 1, [INAUDIBLE]. [LAUNCH SOUND]

kenneth chang

You could hear the rumble as it goes up.

But you could never get over just how bright the light from the engines are. It never does justice to see it on a computer screen or a TV.

But it didn’t capture the imagination of people like going to the moon did for Apollo. Tasks were not the grand dreams that fueled the Space Age.

michael barbaro

So what happens to this kind of underwhelming NASA space program that you’re describing?

kenneth chang

The space shuttles were actually designed to be run almost like a commercial enterprise. They were reusable. The thought was that they could land and fly very quickly. And that they would fly often enough that the cost of a mission would be fairly cheap as NASA got better and better at running the shuttles. In fact, at various points, there were actually discussions that NASA would outsource the operation of the shuttles to a private company.

michael barbaro

Hm.

kenneth chang

Those didn’t happen.

archived recording

We have main engine start — 4, 3, 2, 1, and liftoff, liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission. And it has cleared the tower.

kenneth chang

Because first, in 1986 —

archived recording 1

The engine’s throttling up. Three engines and now at 104 percent.

archived recording 2

Challenger, go with throttle up.

kenneth chang

There was a Challenger accident where the shuttle disintegrated during launch.

archived recording

We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. Flight director confirms that. We are looking at checking with the recovery forces.

kenneth chang

And it killed Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who was aboard.

archived recording

President Reagan has declared a week of mourning for the seven astronauts — five men and two women — who lost their lives on their way into space this morning.

kenneth chang

And this was a huge setback. And NASA had to go back and fix the design. And then they became very careful to make sure that it was safe enough for the astronauts. And of course, once you’re very careful about safety, you’re safer. But that means that everything costs more, everything is slower. And this piece of the space shuttle program continued. Then in 2003, there was another accident.

archived recording

A few minutes ago, it was about eight o’clock, the space shuttle Columbia was going over north Texas.

kenneth chang

Columbia, it was actually on a mission conducting some science experiments. And —

archived recording

You’ll notice here it looks like you can see pieces of the shuttle coming off.

kenneth chang

— as it reentered the atmosphere for landing —

archived recording

Some kind of objects leaving some kind of trail over the skies of North Texas.

kenneth chang

— the structure of the shuttle disintegrated and the seven astronauts aboard died. And this was a turning point, for NASA and the country to decide going to space is dangerous. We are risking our astronauts’ lives to do something in space. What should we be asking them to risk their lives for?

michael barbaro

Mhm.

kenneth chang

And this soul-searching led to the decision that the shuttles were now too old, too complex, too dangerous to continue operating.

archived recording (george w. bush)

The shuttle’s chief purpose over the next several years will be to help finish assembly of the International Space Station.

kenneth chang

So that there would be a few more flights, and then it will be retired.

archived recording (george w. bush)

In 2010, the space shuttle, after nearly 30 years of duty, will be retired from service.

michael barbaro

So after all these years of neglecting the space shuttles and running into safety problems, the decision is not to invest more in them, but essentially, to kind of walk away from the program?

kenneth chang

That’s essentially what happened. But still, NASA needed a way to get its astronauts to and from the space station.

archived recording

Included in the White House’s two billion dollar budget is $850 million to help along commercial space ventures, like SpaceX’s Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule.

kenneth chang

So when the Obama administration came in, they took a look at what NASA was doing and decided that was an opportunity to get more commercial companies into this business of sending people to space.

michael barbaro

And what is NASA thinking at this moment, as it starts to contemplate farming out travel to the space station?

kenneth chang

So the thinking of the NASA officials were, we really want to go back to the moon. We really want to go to Mars. We want to go send astronauts off on new places where they can go look at things that we have never seen before. And because too much of the budget was tied up with the space shuttle, they wanted to find some way to spend less money on what they thought was routine missions, so that they could do something that was more exciting and could better justify what they were created to do.

michael barbaro

Got it. So the thinking is: let a private company do the kind of grunt work of space travel. And that would free the federal government, NASA, up to do the grand explorations.

kenneth chang

That was exactly the reason. And NASA chose two of them that they liked and decided to fund them. One was Boeing and one was SpaceX. And of course, NASA wanted both of these to be operational as soon as possible. It became a sort of friendly competition. Both companies actually ended up three years behind schedule.

michael barbaro

[LAUGHS]

kenneth chang

And at this final time, SpaceX is going to be first. And Boeing is still, perhaps, a year behind.

michael barbaro

So SpaceX wins the competition.

kenneth chang

Yes.

There actually is a flag on the space station. So on the very last space shuttle mission, the astronauts left a flag there. And whoever was going to be on the first vehicle to get to the space station would capture the flag.

michael barbaro

And so that will be SpaceX.

kenneth chang

Yes.

michael barbaro

OK. So Ken, I know you need to go actually watch this rocket launch. So we will let you go —

kenneth chang

Yes.

michael barbaro

— and talk to you once the launch is done and you are off deadline.

kenneth chang

If I miss the launch, my editor is going to kill me. This was actually a conversation I had with my editor. [LAUGHS]

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

archived recording 1

— we want to make that call. Because shortly after that, we will begin loading liquid oxygen onto the second stage. Standby.

archived recording 2

We continue violate a couple different weather rules that we now do not expect to clear in time to allow for a launch today. And today’s launch attempt, Launch Control would end the launch auto sequence and proceed to the launch abort auto sequence, please.

archived recording 3

Launch abort has started.

archived recording 4

And Dragon SpaceX, unfortunately, we are not going to launch today. You are go for 5.100. Launch scrub.

archived recording 5

We’ve heard the call from the crew. They have been informed. Launch director —

michael barbaro

So Ken, it’s nearly 7 p.m. And things did not quite go as planned. What actually just happened down there in Florida?

kenneth chang

So through the whole day, the weather looked really icky. It was raining. It was cloudy. And then, about an hour before liftoff time, the rain sort of cleared up. The clouds start thinning out. And it looked like, for a while, that they were going to actually be able to get the rocket off the launch pad. But then, at the very end, about 15 minutes before the liftoff time, the weather officer said we’re still red for launch. They called off the launch. And they’re going to try again on Saturday.

michael barbaro

So no launch on Wednesday, but perhaps a launch over the weekend?

kenneth chang

Yes.

michael barbaro

So I want to talk about, Ken, this private company that, I guess, almost just put American astronauts into space — SpaceX. I mean, what was it about this company that attracted NASA to it and allowed it to get this coveted contract?

kenneth chang

So SpaceX was this upstart small company. It was very ambitious. And they found ways to do rockets and such that was less expensive and faster than many of the bigger companies in the past. And I always described them for the longest time as the Southwest of the rocket business, Southwest Airlines.

michael barbaro

[LAUGHTER]

kenneth chang

They found efficiencies that other companies did not that has allowed them to find new markets and find ways to do things that weren’t a business model before, because it was too expensive and too slow in the past.

michael barbaro

What are some examples, Ken, of ways that they inexpensively innovated and seemed to save a lot of money on this kind of a launch?

kenneth chang

So in the very beginning, their engineering decisions were often driven by how things could be done efficiently. And this could have been as simple as recycling parts of their rockets. So if you’ve ever watched a rocket launch, the bottom part of the rocket, which is the first stage or booster stage, is the part that lifts up the rocket through the thick bottom part of the atmosphere. And it usually just drops away when it’s done after a few minutes.

michael barbaro

Right.

kenneth chang

And for the longest time, this piece would just fall back into the ocean and be lost.

michael barbaro

Right. And that sounds like a pretty expensive thing to just toss off into the ocean.

kenneth chang

It’s a very expensive thing. Just each engine would be several million dollars.

michael barbaro

Wow.

kenneth chang

So one of the things that, from the very beginning, Elon wanted to do was, we should try to use them again. And for a while, when they were trying to land these boosters, they would just crash and abort. And there was these fantastic explosions as the thing almost landed. And then, finally, they succeeded. They actually managed to land this booster back on the ground at Cape Canaveral. And then now, they do this almost routinely. For every SpaceX launch, you watch it go up, you see the booster drop off. And about 10 minutes after launch, you see it land vertically, almost like those rockets in those 1950s science fiction movies.

michael barbaro

Wow.

kenneth chang

It’s amazing.

This is where SpaceX went from being the Southwest Airlines to a true innovator in this field.

michael barbaro

So Ken, how much, in the end, does it feel like SpaceX has saved in terms of cost from what NASA might have paid to put someone into space a decade ago?

kenneth chang

So the clearest comparison that we have is that before SpaceX came along, NASA had a plan to develop its own rocket and capsule for taking astronauts to the space station. And when that program was canceled, the estimated cost to do this would have been at least $20 billion dollars.

michael barbaro

Wow.

kenneth chang

Now SpaceX has a contract with NASA basically to provide the exact same service, so that all the development costs, plus providing some of the actual launches, for $2.6 billion.

michael barbaro

Wow. So a fraction of that $20 billion dollars?

kenneth chang

Yes.

michael barbaro

Saving that much money would seem like a tremendous boon for NASA, for the federal government, for the American taxpayer. Does anyone at NASA worry that something fundamental is lost when a private company — that is ultimately a business that’s interested in making profit — is running a launch like this?

kenneth chang

I think they’re most excited about what the rocket does as opposed to who builds it and who operates it.

michael barbaro

Hm.

kenneth chang

I always remember the Saturn V rocket from the Apollo missions in the ‘60s, the most impressive thing that’s flown to date. However, it wasn’t because it was so big. It’s because it went to the moon. That’s why we remember it. It doesn’t necessarily matter whose rocket goes to the space station or ultimately takes people to the moon and beyond. It’s that these systems, if they work well, they enable NASA and other agencies to go explore the solar system in new ways that we weren’t able to do before.

michael barbaro

Ken, is this ultimately a positive development that you’re describing here, the privatization of space exploration? Which, I guess, at first blush, seems like something people might be worried about. Is it turning out that this is a very natural evolution of a process that began with the government creating a market, taking these serious risks and opening up to a more efficient private company, and that that’s a pretty good progression?

kenneth chang

So if we go back in history, think of an example where this has happened before. And that is the airplane.

So in the very earliest days, there was various people building different types of an airplane. But there’s no real business for doing it. It is when the government decides to start sending air mail that it created a business where people could start airlines to carry the mail. And that’s led to this wonderful air travel system that we have in the United States and around the world today.

michael barbaro

So if we follow that logic, eventually private space travel could be a vast network that many companies enter and perhaps many civilians use, just like civilian aircraft?

kenneth chang

So once it’s no longer just NASA astronauts going to space, there’s all sorts of new possibilities that open up. So if you have a commercial space station that has nothing to do with NASA that could be filled with millionaire space tourists to spend a couple of weeks in space. It could also be a pharmaceutical company that wants to try out new drugs that can only be made in zero gravity. So once there is a market of going to space that doesn’t involve the government, then everyone else can start thinking of how can I get up there, too? How can I make money up there?

michael barbaro

So when SpaceX does pull off this launch, maybe it’s in a couple of days, you’re saying it’s not really just putting two astronauts into space on a private aircraft. It’s truly launching a new era in the space program. And it’s, I guess, the private era of space travel.

kenneth chang

Yes. And it’s coming sooner than you realize. There’s a company out there doing it right now called Axiom Space. They have a contract with SpaceX. They have an agreement with NASA to use part of the space station for these tourists. And this could be launching as soon as the second half of next year.

michael barbaro

Hm.

So Ken, everything that you’re describing is very exciting. But it occurs to me that it’s also somewhat conditional. I mean, what happens if, now that it’s delayed on Saturday, on Sunday, whenever this launch occurs, what happens if it fails? What happens if it goes badly? Is everything you’re describing then in doubt?

kenneth chang

It’s certainly pushed into the future and delayed. Is it such a setback that everyone says this was a bad idea, we give up, we need to go back to the way things were? I don’t think so. Space is still a very hard business, no matter whether it’s SpaceX or NASA or someone else running these programs. There is a risk to whoever is riding on top of that rocket every time it launches. Everyone who’s down there watching is nervous. They always go, I hope this is not a bad day. Because they realize it could be a bad day. And I don’t think that one bad day means we never go back to space.

michael barbaro

Well, Ken, good luck. I hope that you do get a launch in the next few days. And we’ll check in with you after that.

kenneth chang

Great. Thank you very much.

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today. On Wednesday, just four months after the first case of the coronavirus was confirmed in the U.S., the American death toll reached 100,000, according to The Times, more than any other nation in the world. The virus has now claimed more American lives than the U.S. wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

Most statisticians say that the actual death toll is probably much higher, given how few Americans have ever been tested.

So far, the virus has infected more than 1.7 million Americans.

That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.



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