SpaceX pressed ahead with its second attempt to launch astronauts for Nasa — a historic first for a private company — but stormy weather has threatened more delays.
Elon Musk’s company came within 17 minutes on Wednesday of launching a pair of Nasa astronauts for the first time in nearly a decade from the US, before the threat of lightning forced a delay.
Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine said managers were debating whether to again delay the next launch attempt from Saturday to Sunday to take advantage of a slightly improved forecast at Kennedy Space Center.
At an outdoor news conference on Friday, Mr Bridenstine stressed the need for safety for astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken — no matter how many times it takes to launch them in a SpaceX Dragon capsule to the International Space Station.
“We cannot forget this is a test flight. This — is — a — test — flight," he repeated.
“We will go when everything is as safe as we can possibly make it."
Forecasters put the odds of acceptable weather conditions on Saturday at 50-50, with the outlook improving to 60 per cent favorable on Sunday. Rain and clouds were the main concerns for both days.
Hurley and Behnken, veterans of two space shuttle flights, said they’ve both faced launch delays before.
In a tweet Friday, Hurley said his first shuttle flight was scrubbed five times for weather and technical issues.
“We’re ready for the next launch opportunity!” Behnken tweeted.
While Nasa urged spectators to stay home on Wednesday because of the pandemic, prime viewing spots at area parks and beaches were packed.
A weekend launch could draw even bigger crowds.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex reopened on Thursday, after a 2 1/2-month shutdown, and within a few hours, all 4,000 tickets were snapped up for Saturday’s launch attempt.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were expected to return on Saturday to watch from inside Kennedy.
Whether an attempt is made Saturday or Sunday, “There will be no pressure. We will launch when we’re ready,” Bridenstine added.
The last time astronauts launched to orbit from the US was in 2011 when Atlantis closed out the 30-year space shuttle program. Hurley was on that mission as well.
Nasa hired SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to get the ball rolling again — kicking off a commercial revolution for getting people to low-Earth orbit, according to officials.
In the meantime, Nasa has spent billions of dollars to buy seats on Russian Soyuz capsules for US astronauts, in order to keep the space station staffed.
Boeing's first astronaut flight, on the company's Starliner capsule, is not expected until next year.
On Friday, a prototype of its Starship exploded while undergoing a routine engine test at the company’s Texas site.
The ship vented large amount of gases and was engulfed in a tremendous fireball.
SpaceX did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Nasa, which has a contract with SpaceX to develop Starship for its lunar landing program, has no problems going ahead with this weekend’s unrelated launch of astronauts from Cape Canaveral, agency spokesman Bob Jacobs.
“That’s a test program. That’s why they test," Jacobs said.