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With nation watching, NASA and SpaceX prepare to make history with first astronaut launch in 9 years

The Space X Demo-2 Falcon 9 rocket, with the Crew Dragon capsule (far left), lies horizontal at Launch Pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., Tuesday, May 26, 2020. SpaceX Demo-2 is scheduled to launch Wednesday at 4:33pm. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Space is hard. Hundreds of thousands of individual pieces put together through years of work by thousands of people across the country have to come together into one carefully choreographed dance.

But when done right, space can be glorious.

And as Americans turn their eyes to the sky again on Wednesday afternoon, that’s what they’ll hope to see: The audacious, we-did-it rumble of a rocket clawing its way up, all the pieces working in concert with each other and two brave astronauts onboard for the ride.

That is, of course, if the weather doesn’t get in the way. Space is hard, but sometimes the weather is harder.

SpaceX and NASA will be contending with both as they endeavor to return American astronauts to the International Space Station on a brand new, American vehicle built by Elon Musk’s rocket company at 4:33 p.m. — marking only the fifth time in U.S. history that astronauts have launched on a new spacecraft. The launch will appropriately take off from Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39A, the same that sent humanity to the moon.

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“This is a unique opportunity to bring all of America together in one moment in time and say, ‘Look at how bright the future is.’ That’s what this launch is all about,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at a press conference Tuesday.

It’s about paving the way for the new era of space, one dominated by commercial companies like SpaceX and Boeing, the other contractor that has also built an astronaut-rated spacecraft for NASA. The program, called Commercial Crew, has been more than a decade in the making, since before NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011, at a time when the country had to begin planning for the next vehicle that would take the U.S. to space.

A U.S. crew hasn’t taken off from America in nine years.

Engineer Kevin Vega was around then, as “one of the original crew members” to join the program out of KSC working on the integration of SpaceX’s vehicle, Crew Dragon, with the company’s rocket, Falcon 9. NASA engineer Kathleen O’Brady has been working on this mission for nearly a decade, too. She helped craft the requirements that SpaceX had to fulfill to gain the contract and now oversees certification of the Falcon 9 for human missions.

Both haven’t had much time off in the past few days. Vega called it less days, and more “one continuous timeframe.”

“We’ve done our safety reviews where we’ve tried to identify and think about the things that could break on the rocket and make sure that doesn’t happen,” O’Brady said. “You’re constantly trying to stay vigilant — Is there something else you should have done or should have looked at to make the rocket as safe as possible for [astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley]?”

Behnken and Hurley, the crew that will inaugurate Crew Dragon’s first piloted mission to space, are close friends who came up through the astronaut corps together, attended each other’s weddings, married fellow astronauts and are dads two young boys.

On Wednesday, O’Brady plans to watch them take off from a friend’s house in Titusville with her young sons, ages 3 and 7. Vega will be at the console at KSC, wrestling with a wave of emotions.

“We are trying to keep that console poise and focus,” he said, “and there’s no doubt emotions might be running but we have to hold those down and really make sure we are making the right call and avoid getting into the launch fever type of position.”

For the engineers who have worked on this program, staying steady and avoiding being too brash when there are two lives at stake has been key to weathering the anticipation. Many personally know Behnken and Hurley, who were assigned to the missions in 2015.

Thinking about them has really brought home a sense of purpose and magnitude to the team working the launch. SpaceX and NASA got a preview of what that would be like over the weekend when the astronauts ran through a dry dress rehearsal of launch day preparations.

Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, called it a “turning point.”

“When you see people going into the rocket that is something special,” Koenigsmann said during a press conference Monday. “I feel I had a big impact on everybody in the control center and the team back in Hawthorne [where SpaceX is based], too, to see the two astronauts taking the seats and start working on the panel.”

If all goes well, Behnken and Hurley will again go through the motions and end their day in space on Wednesday. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will be on the Space Coast to watch the launch, with Trump expected to speak following liftoff.

If they launch Wednesday, Behnken and Hurley would reach the ISS about a day later on Thursday, where they’ll spend between six and 16 weeks.

The weather is 60% favorable for launch, with the primary concerns being cloud cover and rain, according to the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron.

On Wednesday, the astronauts will wake at 9 a.m., have breakfast — though NASA won’t say what will be on the menu, only that it’s very good — followed by a weather briefing at noon. They’ll get into their sleek, white SpaceX suits at about 1 p.m. before heading out to the pad at 2:30 p.m. in white Tesla Model X’s with the NASA worm logo in the back windows and the NASA meatball logo on the doors.

The license plate: “ISSBND”

Propellant loading starts about 45 minutes before the launch with the crew aboard — a capability SpaceX got NASA to sign off on — at which point a final call on weather will be made. If the launch is scrubbed at that point or later due to any other issue, there are two back-up windows: Saturday at 3:22 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.

For SpaceX, which was awarded the $2.6 billion contract to develop Crew Dragon in 2014, the mission — whatever day it takes off — is a validation of why the company was founded in 2002.

“Everything in our trajectory is toward that particular moment to launch people on a spaceship. And it’s a huge step, obviously, going from cargo and from even expensive cargo and important cargo to launching two people that are dads,” Koenigsmann said. “You project yourself and you think, you could now be on this rocket, right? You put yourselves in their shoes basically, or in their helmets, and that changes the equation pretty dramatically.”

Bridenstine, the NASA Administrator, said he texted the two astronauts on Monday, Memorial Day.

“I said to them very clearly, ‘If you want me to stop this thing for any reason, say so. I will stop it in a heartbeat if you want me to,’” Bridenstine said. “They both came back and they said, ‘We’re ‘go’ for launch.’”

How to watch

Launch time: 4:33 p.m. Wednesday at Kennedy Space Center’s launch complex 39A.

Watch: NASA TV coverage begins at 12:15 p.m. at nasa.gov/live. Several other networks and cable channels will provide live coverage as well.

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex: The park remains closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and will not have viewing opportunities.

Jetty Park: The park will be open only to annual pass holders from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on a first-come, first-served basis. Jetty Park will be operating at 50% capacity, allowing only the first 230 vehicles in. Walk-ins are also prohibited. Guests will be required to comply with 6 feet social distancing guidelines.

Port Canaveral: The Cove, a restaurant area at Port Canaveral, will be one of only two areas at the port — the other is Jetty Park — that will be open to view the launch.

Beaches: Beaches along Brevard County will be open, with most parking open as well. Visitors are strongly encouraged to practice social distancing guidelines if choosing to watch the launch in person.

Playalinda Beach: The beach, part of the National Park Service, remains closed due to COVID-19.

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© 2020 The Orlando Sentinel