When NASA announced that the first launch of American astronauts from American soil since the last flight of the space shuttle would occur on May 27, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine had a message for people who would like to watch the liftoff, according to The Verge.
“At the end of May, NASA astronauts are slated to launch to space from the United States once again, after nearly a decade of launching on Russian rockets from Kazakhstan — but NASA does not want members of the public to travel to see the mission in person. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is urging people to stay home and watch the historic mission online because of safety concerns associated with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”
NASA has every right to be concerned. The launch of a rocket containing astronauts is like no other show on Earth. When Apollo 11 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969, roughly a million people were present close enough to watch the Saturn V rocket climb on a tail of fire into the clear, blue sky. Hundreds of millions more watched on live television. Other crewed space launches regularly attract hundreds of thousands of spectators.
In the ordinary course of things, Florida officials expected that similar crowds would show up for the Crewed Dragon launch that will carry astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, to the International Space Station from Kennedy Space Center pad 39A. Florida Today explains:
“Prior to the emergence of the novel coronavirus, a half-million or more people were expected to crowd the county’s beaches, river shores, and causeways to watch the historic launch. Local hotels, restaurants, and tourist spots were looking forward to those crowds filling their tills. But on the heels of the coronavirus outbreak, nobody really knows what to expect.”
Local officials are assuming that crowds will defy the coronavirus pandemic to witness America’s return to space. How many people will show up is currently open to conjecture. Much depends on how much of Florida will have been opened after the enforced lockdown that the state has imposed since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Local law enforcement will have quite a challenge on its hands, handling traffic on nearby roads and enforcing social distancing on beaches near the launch site. If crowds are anything approaching what would ordinarily be expected for a space launch, police will likely have to depend on the forbearance of the spectators.
People around the country are already chaffing at stay at home edicts imposed by local and state governments. As PJ Media reports, the governor of California ordered law enforcement to clear the beaches in Orange County from crowds that have congregated there in defiance of his orders. People in Michigan have regularly shown up at the state capital in Lansing, some of them displaying firearms, to protest what many see as the arbitrary nature of the stay at home orders by the governor.
For most Americans, the coronavirus pandemic has wrought unrelenting privation and misery. Some, particularly healthcare workers and first responders, have had to live with the physical danger of coming down with the disease which can, in some cases, result in death or permanent injury. Some have had to put up with government officials, from New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio targeting Jews to others harassing and even arresting parents taking their kids to the park, behaving capriciously.
Therefore, it would only be natural that many Americans would be drawn to an event that elicits pride, a validation that while the country has been knocked back on its heels that it is still capable of doing great things. Nothing speaks to American greatness as a launch of astronauts into space.
It can be hoped that Florida law enforcement deals with whoever shows up to launch the Crewed Dragon with a light hand. The launch would ordinarily be seen as an event to be celebrated. Any instance of people being treated harshly by the police would only detract from the celebratory mood of the occasion.
Much depends on how many local roads, beaches, and parks will be open by the time the launch occurs. One group is quite eager for large crowds, that being owners of motels, hotels, and eateries. Like everyone else, they have taken a hit because of the pandemic and could really use a shot in the arm that a space launch usually brings.