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SpaceX postpones manned mission to space station amid weather concerns


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX scrubbed plans to launch the first American astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil on Wednesday as thunderstorms tore through Florida’s Space Coast, temporarily thwarting a highly anticipated test that could determine the future of American space flight.

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken were slated to blast off to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard SpaceX’s Dragon Crew capsule at 4:33 p.m. But strong winds, heavy rain and lightning posed too high a risk. Another complicating factor was Tropical Storm Bertha, which made landfall in South Carolina, hundreds of miles north of Kennedy Space Center. 

The next available launch windows will be on Saturday and Sunday, though weather could still pose a problem. Currently, there’s a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions during the coming weekend, according to the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron. 

For human space flights, like the one that was scrapped on Wednesday, weather patterns must be suitable at various points throughout the Atlantic Ocean in the event that the crew needs to abort the launch mid-flight in case of an emergency. 

After rains in the early morning on Wednesday, the skies over Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center were grey though a launch still appeared possible. But as the day went on, storms began rolling in and out of the area, as they often do in Florida. 

Prior to the scrapped launch Wednesday, the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron reported a 50/50 chance that the weather would permit the launch, down from 60 percent on Tuesday. 

The mission — dubbed Demo-2 — will mark the first time since 2011, when the Space Shuttle Atlantis made its final journey to the ISS, that astronauts will be sent into space from U.S. soil.

It will also be the first time a private company — not the U.S. government — will be in charge of getting humans into orbit.

The mission will be a crucial final test for SpaceX, the private spaceflight company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, before NASA certifies the company to make regular flights to the space station. 

The flight will test the launch pad, SpaceX’s Dragon Crew capsule and the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, which is already used for non-manned launches. Once in orbit, Hurley and Behnken will also test the spacecraft’s environmental control system, its control system and maneuvering thrusters.

About 24 hours after the launch, the two astronauts will rendezvous and dock with the space station, where they will stay for an extended period of time. The exact duration of their stay has yet to be determined. 

If the mission is successful, it would mark a new era in American space flight and could pave the way for a similar approach to further space exploration, including a mood landing as soon as 2024. 

SpaceX is one of three companies that was awarded a contract from NASA last month to develop lunar landing systems that the agency hopes will help land astronauts on the moon in less than five years.