WASHINGTON — While both the president and vice president plan to attend the Demo-2 commercial crew launch, there will be far fewer people attending the first American human orbital spaceflight in nearly a decade than once expected.
The White House announced May 22 that President Donald Trump will go to the Kennedy Space Center for the Demo-2 launch on May 27, but provided few other details about the visit.
Vice President Mike Pence had already announced plans to attend the launch during the May 19 meeting of the National Space Council, which Pence chairs. “I’ll be with you next week,” he said to Bridenstine, who participated in the meeting by video conference from the Johnson Space Center.
“Excited to welcome @POTUS Trump and @VP Pence to @NASAKennedy to usher in a new era of space exploration on May 27th!” Bridenstine tweeted May 23. “Under President Trump’s leadership, we are once again launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.” The commercial crew program that supported development of Crew Dragon started in the administration of President Barack Obama, and built on the commercial cargo program started during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Presidents have rarely attended NASA launches. President Richard Nixon was at KSC for the November 1969 launch of Apollo 12, the second mission to land astronauts on the moon. President Bill Clinton attended the STS-95 shuttle launch in October 1998, whose crew included senator and former astronaut John Glenn. Obama visited KSC to view the launch of the STS-134 shuttle mission in April 2011, but the launch was scrubbed because of a technical problem, and he did not return when the launch did take place a few weeks later.
A similar fate could befall Trump and Pence. In addition to the risk of technical problems scrubbing a launch, weather forecasts are not promising, with one by the 45th Space Wing released May 23 projecting only a 40% chance of acceptable conditions. Those projections exclude other issues, such as weather conditions at abort sites along the launch’s trajectory, that could also scrub a launch.
While both Trump and Pence plan to attend, the number of other official guests will be limited because of the coronavirus pandemic. According to a slide presented at the flight readiness review for the Demo-2 mission May 21, visible in an image of the meeting released by NASA, KSC is preparing to host just 465 guests, of which 250 are assigned to a causeway site designated “possible backup/overflow only.”
NASA has also restricted the number of media credentials for the launch and changed media opportunities. At a May 22 briefing at KSC to discuss the flight readiness review that was just completed, a press conference room that ordinarily would be standing room only had no reporters present, with questions taken only by phone.
“Here we are today in an empty room, talking to cameras, and all of us are six feet apart,” said Bridenstine. The press conference participants, who normally sit shoulder-to-shoulder at the dais, were spread out across the stage to comply with social distancing guidelines. “We all walked in here with our masks on.”
A bigger uncertainty is how many members of the public will travel to watch the launch. Bridenstine has for weeks urged the public not to travel, instead recommending people watch the launch at home. NASA has provided special “virtual guest” content on its website and social media channels.
“We’re asking people not to travel to the Kennedy Space Center, and I will tell you, that makes me sad to even say it,” Bridenstine said at a May 1 media briefing about the mission, saying that he was concerned that a mass gathering could spread COVID-19.
Local officials in Florida’s Space Coast region have provided mixed messages. “We’re excited about the return to human space flight from Florida’s Space Coast and understand the caution around traveling to view this historic launch,” states the website of Space Coast Office of Tourism. “There is plenty of room along our 72 miles of coastline to watch the launch and practice social distancing but we urge visitors to plan ahead.”
A check of hotel booking sites May 23 found that a number of hotels in the Space Coast area, including in the cities of Cocoa Beach and Titusville, had vacancies around the May 27 launch date. Such hotels would ordinarily be fully booked for a launch as significant as this.
Viewing opportunities will also be limited. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, closed since mid-March, plans to partially reopen May 28, a day after the scheduled Demo-2 launch. The slide from the flight readiness review briefing stated that Delaware North, the company that operates the complex and hosts viewing opportunities even for relatively routine launches, will have “no public guests” for Demo-2.
“You will have had a lot more people watching nearby at previous launches,” Pence told the Demo-2 astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who appeared by videoconference at the National Space Council meeting. “They’re encouraging Americans to watch from afar, but I want to assure you that the president and I are looking forward, looking very much forward, to cheering you on.”