May 19, 2020 - Science

Spectators urged to stay home during historic space launch

A crowd on a bridge in Florida watching the final space shuttle launch in 2011. Photo: NASA/Frank Michaux

NASA is trying to keep its people and the public on the ground safe during the historic launch on May 27 to the International Space Station in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: Thousands of people have shown up on Florida's beaches up and down the Space Coast to watch crewed launches in the past. For this historic launch — which will mark the first time astronauts take flight from U.S. soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011 — NASA would typically expect more.

  • Many counties in Florida have lifted their stay-at-home orders, but there are cautions about gatherings of people, meaning NASA has to worry about both the safety of astronauts and the observers.

Details: Both NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken — who are flying to the space station with SpaceX — are in quarantine ahead of the launch in order to protect them from potentially contracting the coronavirus or other illnesses.

  • "Our crew will be tested for coronavirus before they go. If that test were to come back positive, of course, we wouldn't send them to the International Space Station," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a media roundtable last week.

At the same time, Bridenstine has urged members of the public not to travel to Kennedy Space Center for the launch, saying that the popular tourist destination will be closed to the public.

  • "We have other missions that need to go forward," Bridenstine added. "We don't want to risk the health of the people who work at Kennedy."

The big picture: Usually NASA welcomes a variety of special guests — occasionally including celebrities — to watch launches in person from Florida, but next week's mission will be slightly different.

  • "We do intend to have a very small group of VIPs that would include members of Congress and senators and maybe some members of the National Space Council," Bridenstine said.
  • NASA has also limited the number of press on site allowed to cover the launch in person.

Go deeper

Why space is good politics for Trump

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump's exuberance around today's scheduled SpaceX launch — including his decision to travel to Florida to watch — goes beyond a personal fascination with astronauts, rockets, and how to make money and wield power in the next frontier.

The bottom line: There's a presidential election in November, and the U.S. space program enjoys wide support across party lines. It's good politics for Trump, at least for now.

How to watch SpaceX's historic crewed launch Wednesday

SpaceX's Crew Dragon. Photo: SpaceX

When SpaceX stages its first crewed launch on Wednesday, millions of people will likely tune in to watch it live on TV or directly through NASA and SpaceX via livestream.

Why it matters: If all goes according to plan, the SpaceX launch will mark the first time a private company has launched people to orbit, and the first crewed rocket launch from U.S. soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.

A reckoning for Russia's space program

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

SpaceX's first attempt at launching astronauts from American soil this week is a historic moment that will stress the decades-long relationship between the U.S. and Russia in space.

Why it matters: Since the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia have collaborated intimately in space. As the U.S. regains the ability to launch people with its own rockets, the future of Russia's already struggling civil space program — and how the U.S. will collaborate with it — is unclear.