The astronaut walkway is extended to SpaceX's Crew Dragon space capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket to prepare for liftoff Wednesday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo courtesy of SpaceX
ORLANDO, Fla., May 26 (UPI) -- NASA and SpaceX plan to provide more than 24 hours of live coverage for the return of human spaceflight from the United States, with programming starting at noon Wednesday.
Astronauts Bob Behnken and Douglas Hurley are scheduled to lift off at 4:33 p.m. EDT that day, sitting in a SpaceX-built capsule atop a SpaceX-built rocket. They will head for the International Space Station, with arrival projected 19 hours later.
The extended broadcast will be available on NASA's YouTube Channel -- NASA Live -- and on SpaceX's feed. The major TV and cable news networks are expected to air the liftoff, with ABC News providing deeper coverage.
The Walt Disney-owned unit will air a two-hour special report, "Launch America: Mission to Space Live," from 3 to 5 p.m. EDT Wednesday on the National Geographic cable network, while ABC News will air a special report on the network minutes before the launch.
The big day, which took years of preparation, will come down to last-minute assessments of conditions around the world.
Because the astronauts could need to abort at any moment and land in the ocean, controllers are monitoring weather risk along thousands of miles of the flight path. But the biggest potential problem might lie right at the Kennedy Space Center launch site in Florida.
Rain and clouds from an entrenched weather system prompted flood warnings starting on Monday that run through Wednesday. For launch time, the U.S. Space Force forecast show a 40 percent chance of unfavorable conditions.
Flight rules prohibit launching a rocket in rain or with a thick layer of cumulus clouds, and those are the concerns for Wednesday. But the outlook has improved somewhat, Mike McAleenan, launch weather officer for the Space Force, said at an early evening preflight briefing Monday.
If the launch does appear to be a go for Wednesday, astronauts Behnken and Hurley will don their black-and-white SpaceX flight suits about four hours before liftoff. They will then drive to Launch Complex 39A and be locked into the capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket about two hours before launch.
For the dress rehearsal Saturday, they made the 20-minute drive in a white Tesla, built by Elon Musk's company. Musk also is the SpaceX chief executive officer.
A little over nine minutes after launch, TV and online viewers should be able to see SpaceX's reusable first-stage booster travel back to Earth, hopefully landing on a company barge in the Atlantic Ocean.
At the 12-minute mark, the Crew Dragon capsule will separate from the second-stage booster, and the capsule's nose cone will open to prepare for docking at the International Space Station.
NASA plans a post-launch news conference at 6 p.m. Wednesday, which will be aired on NASA-TV and other outlets.
It's not clear from NASA's schedule how much of the broadcast overnight will include communication with the astronauts. They are scheduled to perform tests of the capsule's features, including manual flying, according to the space agency.
Docking is planned for 11:29 a.m. EDT Thursday, but the hatch won't open until 1:55 p.m. so the capsule can be checked. Thirty minutes later, NASA will broadcast the traditional welcoming ceremony for new arrivals to the space station.
Another briefing is to wrap up the live coverage at 4 p.m. EDT Thursday, beamed from Johnson Space Center in Houston.
In Florida, NASA has urged the public to stay away from the the Kennedy Space Center area. Historic launches have attracted a million visitors, who jammed the roads and beaches. But this launch will take place amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a poor weather outlook.
A return date for Hurley and Behnken aboard the Crew Dragon has not been determined. Their mission was extended to between six and 16 weeks, according to SpaceX, to allow them to perform maintenance on the space station with astronaut Chris Cassidy. He already is aboard.
Once the Crew Dragon heads back to Earth, it will be tested for a final time during a fiery re-entry and the first astronaut splashdown since the Apollo era -- in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida.
NASA astronaut Douglas Hurley (C) waves to onlookers as he boards a plane at Naval Air Station Pensacola to return him and NASA astronaut Robert Behnken home to Houston a few hours after the duo landed in their SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft off the coast of Pensacola, Fla,, on August 2, 2020. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo