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First Launch Of Astronauts From U.S. Soil In Nine Years; A First For Space: Private Company Launches Astronauts From U.S. Soil; President Trump In Florida For SpaceX Launch. Aired 3-4p ET

Aired May 30, 2020 - 15:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone. I'm John Berman. This is CNN's special coverage of what could be a historic moment in U.S. space exploration.

T-minus 22 minutes, we could witness the return of human space flight to the United States. Live pictures of Florida's Kennedy Space Center where SpaceX will launch two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

Those astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, who are already strapped into the Crew Dragon Capsule, they are doing their final checks before launch. And if you're going to go to space and make history as the first launch from U.S. soil in nine years, you need some space jams.

We're told they drove over to the launch pad listening to AC/DC's Back in Black, The Girl of Ipanema and the Star Spangled Banner. That is a varied play list to say the least.

I want to straight to CNN's Rachel Crane, who is at the Kennedy Space Center. Rachel, if this happens, this will be the first time a commercial company has brought humans into orbit. NASA just said launch chances have risen to 70 percent now as the weather improves. Talk to us about what's happening right now in these final minutes.

RACHEL CRANE, CNN BUSINESS INNOVATION AND SPACE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, first, I've got to tell you, I'm starting to get butterflies. Because I can tell you, here on the ground I don't see any clouds in sight over Launch Pad 39. So we are crossing our fingers and toes that this launch takes off. It kind of feels like it's going to.

So right now, let me tell you what's happening with this rocket. They're loading over a million pounds of fuel right now. That's liquid oxygen and kerosene. The crew access arm has been retracted. The launch escape system has been armed. As you said, Bob and Doug are strapped into the capsule.

Now, five minutes out, that's when terminal countdown begins and this is when Dragon's onboard computers take control of the vehicle and then the strong back retracts.

One minute before launch, Falcon 9 will be in start mode. That's when the computers autonomously take control of the countdown. 45 seconds before launch, the launch director will say, go for launch. Two seconds before countdown, the nine Merlin engines will ignite. And at T-minus zero, hopefully today, we will see the historic launch of Crew Dragon once again having American astronauts launch from American soil on American rockets for the first time in nine years, John.

So, as you can tell, I'm pretty jazzed about this. Space nerds all across the country are pretty just about this. And I'm sure you're a little excited too, because I know you have a little space nerd in you, John.

BERMAN: I am super excited. And just so people know the stages that we're going through for the next 20 minutes or so, there will be a bunch of different checks, and as Rachel was saying, processes to begin the launch, and then it will be 12 minutes. After 12 minutes, the capsule will be on its own flying into space, and then 19 hours before it docks with the International Space Station about 10:30 A.M. Eastern Time tomorrow.

And, Rachel, for these astronauts, what will the difference be between flying the Crew Dragon, this capsule we're looking on on top of the Falcon 9 rocket compared to the shuttles both have flown before?

CRANE: Right. As you pointed out, both Bob and Doug have flown this shuttle before. They're expecting actually a smoother ride with Crew Dragon now. Just looking at it, you can see the difference between Crew Dragon and shuttle.

Shuttle was shaped like a plane, designed to run -- land on a runway. Crew Dragon is a capsule design, like a gum drop. And inside, that's where a lot of the difference. You can see gone are the 2,000 switches and knobs of the shuttle. This is a very sleek design, it's a lot of touch screens.

And I've had the opportunity to speak to Bob and Doug just a couple weeks ago. They said, if all goes to plan, the autonomous -- the Crew Dragon is made to fly fully autonomously if needed. So that potentially makes their job much easier. On this test flight, they will, in fact, be testing the manual override of the autonomous capability, so they will be actually piloting the capsule several times throughout the journey themselves.

But on demo one, which was a test flight of this system a year ago, they actually recorded the sound inside of the capsule so Bob and Doug could test that out and actually run through the simulator with that audio, so they knew what to expect. And, apparently, it's quite loud. So they're expecting a smoother ride but a bit of a louder ride, John.

BERMAN: The goal, obviously, in all of the training is to make it be exactly like it is in real life so that nothing is new when it happens now about 18 minutes.

Rachel, we're seeing this white smoke drifting away from the launch pad there. Explain what that is.

CRANE: You know, as I said, the fuel is being loaded right now on to the Falcon 9, over a million pounds of liquid oxygen, they call it LOx, and RP1, which is the kerosene.


And so what you're seeing there is the liquid oxygen boiling away. So that's why they try and do that loading, load and go, they call it, right before launch so to prevent as much of the fuel from boiling off as possible.

So that's what you're seeing, that smoke, that's completely normal and to be expected. You see that also with the cargo emissions, so whenever Falcon 99 launches, you see that smoke right there, John.

BERMAN: All right. Rachel Crane at the Kennedy Space Center. We're 17 minutes now. And if people remember from Wednesday, it was just under 17 minutes when that launch was scrubbed. So we're close to being past where we were just a few days ago. Fingers crossed, Rachel, we'll be back with you in just a minute.

The word from NASA just a short time ago was there is now a 70 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for launch. This up from a previous 50 percent chance of favorable weather. So let's go straight to Meteorologist Allison Chinchar in Atlanta for more on the weather. Allison?

ALLISON CHINCHAR, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes. One of the key components too is that we're only giving it about a 10 percent chance of lightning. Now, remember, lightning was one of the major factors on Wednesday's scrub. So this is good news.

But keep in mind, it's not just the lightning at the surface. They also have to keep an eye on something called the electric field mill. Basically, what they're looking at is the electric charge in the atmosphere anywhere in the vicinity of this region, not just -- not necessarily right at the launch pad.

You can see we have a couple of storms out there in the vicinity. Most of them are now starting to slide south of Cape Canaveral. There is still a little lightning within some of those particular storms. But the point is that they're headed in the right direction, which is away from Cape Canaveral.

Still something they're going to have to keep a close eye on, again, these are pop-up storms, which means they can pop up at a moment's notice. And it's often like many people say, when you have a pot of boiling water, you know bubbles will come but it's hard to figure out exactly where those bubbles are going to pop.

Here is a look. At 3:22, the official forecast is expected to be scattered showers and thunderstorms, winds out of the southeast, maybe about eight to ten miles per hour, that temperature into the low 80s. Again, as of now, things are looking good but it's not a 100 percent guarantee.

Now, according to the 45th Weather Squadron, these are the people that make those decisions at NASA, again, the primary concerns are still going to be flight through the preset and, again, keeping an eye on the thunderstorms in the general vicinity.

And, again, it's not just the area -- the weather right around the launch pad, John. We talked about this before. They also have to monitor the weather across over 50 locations stretching from the east coast to the United States, Canada all the way up to portions of Northern Ireland. And that does include areas of the Atlantic Ocean.

One thing they're keeping an eye on is this particular region right here. This tropical disturbance has about a 60 percent chance of development.

Now, this isn't necessarily a tropical storm. It's going to make big waves around land masses, but they have to keep an eye on it. Some of these bands of this outer portion of the storm could still potentially have an impact as the ship or as the shuttle is going up. So, again, this is something they all have to kind of keep a very close eye on when they're monitoring a lot of these things.

And I know Rachel has talked about this. We've all talked about this. Again, it's also key component is that it's not an instantaneous window. I know the case was on Wednesday, if they could have just an extra ten minutes, maybe 20 minutes for that weather to clear, it would have made a big difference, but they simply don't have that for this instance today.

So it's going to be one of those where the weather has to be perfect at 3:22 or they will scrub the launch again.

BERMAN: All right. Allison Chinchar, thank you for that update. Just so people know, we are now past where they were on Wednesday when they scrubbed the launch, 14 minutes to go until the Crew Dragon capsule launches on top of the Falcon 9 rocket. Allison, thanks for being with us.

We were told that President Trump is now at the Kennedy Space Center for the launch. Our Boris Sanchez is there. Boris?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, John. Yes. President Trump arriving at the Kennedy Space Center just a few moments ago. The president before arriving here saying that he feels an obligation to be on-hand for this launch.

I spoke to a White House official who told me that the president is eager to put his stamp on this historic moment to show that America is ready for what he calls a transition to greatness and ready to move on beyond the coronavirus pandemic that's now claimed more than a hundred thousand American lives.

The president also clearly eager to counterprogram as so much of the country is divided and we're seeing scenes of chaos in major cities across the nation. This is something that all Americans can root for and the president wants to put his image out there in front of this.

Further, geography may also play a role. Remember, this is the Sunshine State, a state that was critical to President Trump's victory in 2016, one that will be crucial to his victor of re-election in 2020. So the president wants to raise his profile here in the Sunshine State while also diverting eyes away from the chaos that's engulfed the nation, John.


BERMAN: All right. Boris Sanchez for us at the Kennedy Space Center. Boris, thank you very much.

We are now 12 minutes and change away from the historic SpaceX launch. We are told the astronauts listened to Back in Black from AC/DC on the way to the rocket in that vein (ph). Let's just say, for those about to launch, we salute you.

We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


BERMAN: All right. We are getting ever closer. Eight minutes now until launch time for today's SpaceX flight. It was scrubbed on Wednesday. We are well past the moment it was scrubbed then, eight minutes to go.

This will mark the first time in history that a commercial aerospace company has carried humans into earth's orbit. And if all goes as planned, two veteran astronauts, Bob Behnken and Douglas Hurley, they will ride about 19 hours before arriving at the International Space Station tomorrow.

CNN's Rachel Crane is at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Rachel, we are now exactly eight minutes.


What's the latest?

CRANE: Well, John, as you pointed out, we are just eight minutes away from the scheduled lift-off at 3:22 local time here at Kennedy Space Center. And, typically, we would be seeing tons and tons of people flooding out of buildings all around us coming out to watch what we all are thinking is going to be the historic launch of Crew Dragon here today, but those crowds aren't here at Kennedy Space Center. That's because, of course, this launch is happening during the corona pandemic.

But I got to tell you, despite not having those crowds, despite just having a handful of media here to cover this as opposed to over 1,500 people that normally would be covering this, you feel energy in the air. That's because it actually feels like this rocket is about to take off, that history is about to be made today, that, once again, America will have a home grown way of ferrying our astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station.

As you know, we've been reliant on the Russians since the retirement of the shuttle program in 2011 to transport our astronauts back and forth to the hundred billion dollar investment we have in the International Space Station and we paid the Russians over $4 billion over the years to do so. NASA has invested over $3 billion in this program with SpaceX to get us here today.

SpaceX has planned to fly six of these Crew Dragon missions for NASA under the current contract. And we're hoping that today that that demo two, as they are calling, this launch today is going to be a success. And as you pointed out a little over 19 hours from now, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken should be rendezvousing with the International Space Station and making history. John?

BERMAN: Six minutes and 25 seconds and counting to go, Rachel. We saw pictures of President Trump along with the vice president and Jim Bridenstein, who is in charge in NASA. They were standing on top of the roof there. They are there to watch the launch. For those keeping score at home, you can clearly see not wearing masks. That has become a thing, obviously, in the last several weeks and, obviously, they are standing very close to each other.

Leave that aside for a moment. It has been nine years, nine years since a crewed space flight from U.S. soil, and I covered the shuttle program for a long time, it's such a long time, an incredibly long time given the history of the space program. That is one reason why it's historic.

Five minutes and 45 seconds away, what should we be watching for as this launch plays out?

CRANE: All right. About 45 seconds to launch, you're going to hear the launch director say, go for launch. But about five minutes before that, that's when it will be an autonomous mode. About a minute before Falcon 9's onboard computers will take control and it will be counting down to the T-minus zero lift-off. Two seconds before launch, that's when those nine Merlin engines will ignite and have the thrust of five 747s, that 1.7 million pounds of thrust at lift-off.

A few minutes after that, we'll have the separation of the first stage of Falcon 9 and they are hoping to land it on their drone trip in the Atlantic, which has become pretty ordinary now for SpaceX. They've done it over 50 times, you know. Then shortly thereafter the Crew Dragon will continue on to orbit with -- to the International Space Station.

Sorry, I just want to let you know that it is -- we've just got the word that it is officially switched to autonomous countdown right now. So the onboard computers, they have taken control of this countdown. I mean,

John, I got to tell you, I have got crazy butterflies right now. As you know I am a huge space nerd and have been following the commercial program and this program the entirety of my career. So to be here at this moment on this day covering it and delivering the news to you, I got to tell you it's emotional.

BERMAN: It is. It really is. And President Trump, for his part, just said it is a go. So we're watching that very closely as well. Rachel Crane, thank you very much for being with us and enjoy. I know this is very important to you. Joining me now, a veteran of four space flights and the former commander of the International Space Station, retired Astronaut Captain Scott Kelly, also CNN contributor Miles O'Brien, a very familiar face during CNN's coverage of the space shuttle program over the years. Gentlemen, thank you for being with us during this moment.

Scott Kelly, if you are with us right now, I don't see you on the screen, this is obviously something we haven't seen in years. Just talk to me about your feelings, three minutes and 50 seconds to go.

SCOTT KELLY, RETIRED NASA ASTRONAUT: Well, it is pretty exciting, John, an exciting time in many astronauts' life to be launching into space, whether it is your fourth time or in this case Bob and Doug's third flight. So I think at this point, the weather is always a factor and can always change but it looks like everything is looking very positive. So they're pretty excited.

BERMAN: Miles O'Brien, I know you are as excited as Scott is and I am as well. Talk to me about what's different inside mission control for this than the launches that we've seen before.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, John, it's a SpaceX launch. This countdown is being presided over by the SpaceX team. And they are providing a service to NASA.


NASA, of course, is intertwined in this process and looking at it very carefully, and, of course, NASA management ultimately has the right to say, no, let's not go today.

But, generally speaking, what we're seeing here are decisions made by SpaceX, by the SpaceX flight controllers and engineers and SpaceX management in providing that service to NASA. That's a fundamental shift. Historically, when the shuttle astronauts flew in all previous NASA missions, it was a NASA-owned rocket, NASA built with help from contractors, and the decisions were made by NASA staffers.

So it's a very different construct and the idea is to make it a lot cheaper and easier to get to space. We'll see how it turns out here.

BERMAN: So, Scott Kelly, what is going through the minds of Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley right now or should I say the stomachs? I don't know where butterflies actually go, physiologically.

KELLY: Yes. You know, they're thinking about their jobs. At this point, what most of the apprehension behind, you are committed to doing this. Their life work basically, 20-plus goals at NASA for each of them. And, you know, they're thinking about what they have to do in a nominal situation but also off nominally.

I am not that familiar with the SpaceX. But even though it is autonomous, there are functions that they have to perform. So that's what they're thinking of the right now.

BERMAN: All right. Scott Kelly, Miles O'Brien, if you will, what we are going to do here as we look at the pictures right now of the astronauts on the right-hand side of your screen, the Crew Dragon capsule on the left-hand side of your screen, we're going to open up to the sound from launch control to listen in to the communications one minute away from history.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One minute to launch.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Falcon 9 is in startup. Dragon is in countdown. FTS is armed for launch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Under a minute now the FTS, flight termination system, has been armed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dragon, SpaceX, go for launch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: SpaceX, Dragon, we're go for launch. Let's light this candle.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: T-minus 30 seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stage one tanks pressing for flight.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: T-minus 15 seconds, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero. Ignition, lift-off as the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon, go NASA, go SpaceX. God speed Bob and Doug.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: America has launched.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So rises a new era of American space flight and the ambitions of a new generation continuing the dream. 20 seconds into flight stage one propulsion is nominal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: T-plus 30 seconds into this historic mission, flying crew onboard Dragon and Falcon 9 and look at them go.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Falcon power turned to nominal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: M1D throttling down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're throttling down to get ready for the period of maximum dynamic pressure. We're in the throttle bucket. Reports say all systems are go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Vehicle is supersonic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've exceeded mach one on the Falcon 9.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're throttling back up to full power as we're through max Q.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Copy one bravo. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we heard that one bravo call out. That's just the second abort zone that they're in. They'll continue to be on this until the first stage has done its job and they switch over to the second.


At this point Bob and Doug pulling about 2.3 Gs, 2.3 times the earth's gravity, already over 1,500 miles per hour.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've heard the call out for MVac engine chill. That's getting the MVac engine ready to light. That will come at about 2:44 into flight.

Right now, everything continuing to look good. Next major event coming up is going to be the triple. We'll have main engine cut-off of the nine first stage engines, stage separation and then ignition of the second stage engine to continue to carry the astronauts into orbit coming up in about 20 seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: M1D throttle down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We heard we're throttling down to Merlin engines on the first stage.

And we have MECO.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Falcon stage separation confirmed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Falcon to Alpha. MVac ignition.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. We have stage separation confirmed. The first stage beginning its flight back, the second stage being powered by that single Merlin 1D vacuum engine has ignited and is now carrying Bob and Doug into orbit.

So they're going to continue under the power of this second stage --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stage two propulsion is nominal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- which will cut off at SECO. We're second engine cut-off in about eight minutes and 44 second into today's flight. So a little over five minutes to go still on this second stage.

You heard the call out to Alpha. So they are now in the longest abort zone that carries them all the way from about North Carolina up the eastern seaboard almost to Canada.

Things are looking good though, getting good call outs. Nominal propulsion on that second stage, Bob and Doug continuing to make their way into orbit.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dragon SpaceX nominal trajectory.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Acquisition of signal, Bermuda.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: SpaceX Dragon nominal trajectory.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. Hearing nominal trajectory, so, Dragon pointed in the right direction, continuing to make their flight uphill. We heard acquisition of signal, Bermuda. That's one of the other ground stations that they're using to get telemetry and data back from this spacecraft.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stage two propulsion is still nominal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A little over four minutes, 40 seconds into the flight, Bob and Doug flying at more than 5,600 miles per hour.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dragon SpaceX nominal trajectory.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- already almost 200 miles down range from the Kennedy Space Center, nominal trajectory continuing.

And while they continue uphill, it looks like we are getting a view of the first stage as well.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: On your right screen, you can see that first stage with the grid fins deployed. It's making its way back to attempt to land on our drone ship. Of course, I still love you today.

We're just about a minute, a couple minutes away from the entry burn. And that's where three of the nine Merlin engines do ignite to help slow the vehicle down as it re-enters into the earth's atmosphere.

And then after the entry burn will be the landing burn, which is just a single engine burn.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dragon SpaceX nominal trajectory.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nominal trajectory.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Starting chills for entry --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's that call out. They are still on a nominal trajectory on Dragon, still on second stage. And that's that MVac engine on second stage on your left screen.

Again, on your right screen is the first stage booster coming back towards our drone ship. Of course, I still love you. We're about a minute away from entry burn.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Meanwhile, that second stage continuing to power Dragon into orbit.


And if you're keeping an eye on that timer, that's going to continue to burn until eight minutes and 44 seconds into flight. So a little over two minutes from now we'll hear the call out and it'll be a little under or over -- (CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A little over 3:00 until Dragon physically separates from the second stage of the Falcon 9.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dragon on trajectory.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dragon path on trajectory.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Continuing to check in with Bob and Doug as they are on a nominal trajectory.

Just about 10 seconds away from the first stage, starting that entry burn on the right screen. We should be able to see that view live.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stage one entry burn startup.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's the entry burn beginning.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This burn lasts about 36 seconds long.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stage two FTS is saved.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: While the entry burn continues, we are about a minute away. And we'll have a number of events happen in rapid succession.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The engine cut-off looking for that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The stage one landing burn shortly after.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Actually, just within a few seconds of each other.

Such a cool view on your left screen seeing Bob and Doug on Dragon. Right now, you can see the displays they are seeing.

BERMAN: All right, you're looking at it right now as the crew Dragon capsule is being carried to space on the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket.

Right now, the first stage is actually on its way back down to earth. And one notable feature of these rockets are they are reusable and will land if all goes well on drone vessels in the sea.

I would like to, as we watch this, and I want to tell people, at 12 minutes, so about three minutes from now, will be the final stage where it separates from the second part of the rocket.

I want to show people the launch one more time here. And that was the launch moments ago of the first launch of a crewed

spacecraft from U.S. soil in nine years. And the first time ever a launch from a private company.

I'm joined by Miles O'Brien, CNN space analyst, and Scott Kelly, NASA astronaut.

Scott, your feelings right now?

SCOTT KELLY, NASA ASTRONAUT: Lately, not a lot of great news or good news in this country. This is just great. I'm very excited not only for Bob and Doug but all the time that put so many years of labor into this.

The first flight of anything, any aircraft is significant but, more so, the first flight of doing something like this is a real achievement. So I am absolutely thrilled.

BERMAN: On the left-hand side of your screen there is the landing drone basically of the first stage of that rocket.

Miles O'Brien, it is always remarkable to see this. This is a launch we haven't seen before. Yes, SpaceX has launched unmanned capsules and rockets before but this is the first time astronauts are onboard. So we are watching something happen for the very first time.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Yes, John. We should point out they are officially on orbit now. That is a big deal, when you turn offer the engines and you begin hurtling around the planet at 17,500 miles an hour. That's the critical 8.5 to nine minutes that we worry about the most.

It is similar and, yet, it is very different to what we've been used to over the years. You have to give credit to the SpaceX approach. For years, they were flying cargo to the International Space Station.

They began with a design and built the cargo craft with human beings always in mind. And so they got a lot of experience with the Falcon 9 Dragon combination sending cargo up to the International Space Station.

While this is a first launch with humans strapped inside and that ups the ante on safety -- human rating is a big deal -- they learned an awful lot over the past 10 years in those repeated trips to the International Space Station.

So, you know, when you harken back to the first space shuttle launch back in 1981, that vehicle had never flown before. That was an extraordinary test flight accomplished in that day.

In this case, this is, in some respects, in many respects, a tried- and-true system that Behnken and Hurley are riding on.


BERMAN: At 12 minutes, T-plus 12 minutes -- we're about 20 seconds from that -- the capsule will separate completely from the rocket.

I want to listen in for a second to see if we can hear some of that communication.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The separation event should be coming up shortly and then they'll begin a series of checks on the Draco thrusters that will be used to maneuver and then power Dragon on its flight to the International Space Station.

Standing by for separation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Expected loss of signal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This sounds like we had an expected LOL loss of signal with one of the ground stations.

Waiting for confirmation now of that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dragon separation confirmed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dragon separation confirmed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's a great view right in front of you of Dragon separating.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And there's that call out.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dragon is now officially making its way to the International Space Station today.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dragon SpaceX with that separation call.

BERMAN: The second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket drifting back down to earth. The capsule is on its own.

Scott Kelly, an incredible moment to witness.

I have to imagine, for you, as someone who has hitched a ride on a Soyuz, a Russian rocket before, this looks to be traveling a little bit more style and comfort here.

KELLY: Definitely, a bigger coolness factor when you look at the blue lights and the space suits. Different than the Soyuz. Although any rocket you fly into space is definitely cool. This is a little bit extra especially think.

BERMAN: It was what, $86 million. A pop there on the Soyuz.

This coming from U.S. soil, putting Americans up into the air.

They have a 19-hour ride, Miles, at this point to the International Space Station. It is interesting. They don't know how long they'll stay. At this point it is anywhere from a month to three months. NASA has yet to decide how long they'll stay up there.

O'BRIEN: Yes. It is a test flight. That's the important thing we've been trying to get across here.

But, hey, you've got two guys who are up at the space station. The space station currently has one U.S. astronaut. And the U.S. side of the house could use a little bit of help. So why not stay there for a reasonable period of time?

The limiting factor, I'm told, is the solar rays themselves. They will degrade in orbit and their functionality will degrade so much. So we'll be watching very closely to see how long they can stay, maybe upwards of 120 days.

The other thing that is important is the crew Dragon, the next flight, the official crew flight is slated for August 30th. They want to get this craft back in time to look at it very carefully, pick it apart like a Thanksgiving Turkey, make sure there aren't any problems that need to be addressed before they give a green light for that next mission on August 30th. Those are the things they'll be thinking about.

In the meantime, Behnken and Hurley have a big to-do list on the International Space Station.

BERMAN: No question about that.

Also joining us is astronaut, Jessica Meir.

You've only been down on earth since the middle of April.

First of all, welcome back. Nice to have you here.

I did get a chance to speak with you when you were on the International Space Station.

You're watching the way you might get there the next time. So I wonder what your feelings are at this moment.

JESSICA MEIR, NASA ASTRONAUT: Yes, that's right. Thank you very much.

I am still re-adjusting to life back here on earth. And I got to say a little bit jealous of Bob and Chunky right now because I'd much rather be floating.

But this is incredibly exciting for all of us especially those of us in the astronaut office. We now have yet another vehicle of getting humans to space. That is really a great thing for everybody on the planet. Particularly exciting from a national pride standpoint to be launching from the U.S. again.

We'll still be continuing the international partnerships. And I wouldn't have traded that time in Russia for anything in the world. That will be an important part of our space journey still going forward.

But it is a great news that we will now have several vehicles, hopefully, another one coming online soon with Boeing, to get humans to space.

BERMAN: Jessica and Scott, I want to ask you both a question right now that has to do with the moment that we're in. This is a shared experience we're enjoying right now as Americans watching a first in space and that is wonderful. It fills us all with pride and joy.

But it is not a joyful moment overall in the country right now. There's immense difficulty on the ground.

So, Scott, I want to put it first to you.

What's it like to be in space? What is it like to have that physical separation from the people and the planet when things are going on that are painful like this?


KELLY: I had a very painful moment in my space flight career. On my first long duration flight, my sister-in-law, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in Tucson, Arizona, and six people killed and other people injured.

It is tough. It is a tough place to be when you feel like you need to support your family, your friends, people at home, and you can't be there.

But both Bob and Doug are professionals. I've known them for 20 years. They'll be able to separate what's going on, on the planet, from their professional responsibilities.

That's what I had to do when Gabby was shot. It's not easy. But, you know, they'll handle it like the professionals they are.

BERMAN: Jessica, can you reflect on that for a moment given the fact that you were up in space for a period of time after the pandemic here started.

MEIR: Yes, that is right. It was actually quite a surreal feeling for us onboard the space station to watch this situation unfolding beneath us.

Particularly given that we were still going about our normal workday. We were very busy. Nothing changed with our operations on board.

Of course, that is not to say that everything hadn't changed for the NASA ground control team. Really a testament to them how they handled things.

They were setting up a separate control room to keep each other safe and still maintain our continuous operations. It was really seamless to us.

If we hadn't been watching the news or talking to family and friends, we wouldn't even have known what was happening.

But it really was this stark contrast. I'm looking out the window and the earth looks equally as stunning as it did the day before as everything is happening here. And we know that we are the only three humans of the 7.5 billion humans on the earth that aren't currently affected by it.

It was a very strange situation and a difficult one to process, particularly for my crewmate, Drew Morgan, who is actually a physician as well.

For both of us to see and him to see all of the medical care personnel and all of the front line workers really risking everything to keep people safe and keep people healthy, it was a little bit difficult for us to not be able to contribute anything to that and to be watching it all from above.

BERMAN: As you can see on our screen right now historian, Douglas Brinkley, joins us now.

Doug, the Apollo, entire Apollo program took place during one of the most tumultuous periods in U.S. history. You're talking about the late '60s and early '70s, talking about Vietnam, riots on the streets.

So the space program has a long history of being something that is happening at the same time as the country is going through a difficult period. Here we are again in 2020 in such a moment.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Yes, we are. I think we just witnessed the new golden age in space exploration.

When John F. Kennedy was president, Alan Shepherd became the first American in space. And the crew, right before take-off right now, said let's light this candle. That was a kudo to the Mercury program. That was -- Alan Shepherd said that when we put our first human in space in '61.

But he was only up in space for 14.8 minutes, meaning up and down, so you can declare a success by the time we retrieved him in the Atlantic. Now it is a lot of wait. It goes on for weeks and months so you don't want to pop the champagne too quickly.

But space became a great diversion from the tumultuous '60s. And 4.4 percent of our national budget went to NASA in the '60s. Today, is 1 percent.

We would see rioting and assassinations and Vietnam protests, hawks and doves, and somehow the Mercury program moved forward. One astronaut in Mercury. Gemini 2 and then Apollo 3. And we had the grand moment when Richard Nixon was president, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. And the word "moonshot" now means American can-do-ism.

Today, I find this as a big morale boost that America is back in a very premier way in space. And it is going to be a robust world now on rocketry and satellites going up. This is going to spur even more rocket activity if this is fully successful.

BERMAN: We should note that the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket has touched down safely on that sea drone, that craft, that barge at sea. So it's there. That is the notable feature of the Falcon 9 system, the whole SpaceX program.

Miles O'Brien, what are you going to be watching for in the next 19 hours as the capsule heads to the International Space Station and then beyond for the SpaceX program?


O'BRIEN: Yes. I mean, the next 19 hours, in the grand scheme of risk, we've passed a big one right now. Re-entry is the next big moment.

We really have to worry about the risk to the crew. They're kind of coasting toward the International Space Station. That rendezvous pretty much all but assured.

I won't go too far there but this is when things get a little less tense in space, once they reach orbit.

Now, looking toward the big picture, this is an exciting moment because what we're going to see now is repeated U.S. launches from U.S. soil, traffic back and forth to the International Space Station. Not requiring astronauts going to live in Moscow for some period of time and go to Kazakhstan.

On top of that, what is important to remember here is that SpaceX has its own private business that it is booking for rides on the Dragon to the station as well.

We've heard a lot of talk about Tom Cruise and his desire to shoot a movie on the International Space Station.

That is just one example of the kinds of interesting things that might lie ahead here as space becomes a little more democratized, a little more accessible, a little more of a business enterprise, and not just a domain of governments.

So it is an exciting, pivotal moment to see this finally happen after all these years.

BERMAN: Our reporter, Rachel Crane, is on the ground there at the Kennedy Space Center.

Rachel, I know this is something you were waiting to see. So describe the moment as you were watching it lift off and the scene there at Kennedy.

CRANE: Well, John, I wasn't the only one waiting for this moment. But all I can speak to is myself here. I was blown away. I've got to tell you, watching this rocket take off just over there, only three miles from launch pad 39A, the location that the Apollo 11 astronauts blasted off from to the moon back in 1969.

So to see this capability restored here on American soil, U.S. astronauts heading to the International Space Station, I mean, as I said, I was emotional before, and I was certainly emotional at that moment of lift-off. I'd be lying if I said I didn't have tears in my eyes.

You could hear the rumble. You could feel it. Just watching it lift off. I mean, everybody all around us. As you know, there are not as many crowds as typically there would be here at Kennedy Space Center watching this launch today.

But the people that were here, all of their heads were pointed up. All of them just taking in this moment and just, you know, knowing we're all here witnessing history -- John?

BERMAN: That neck crane-up as everyone gazes to the sky is a welcomed sight on U.S. soil.

After nine years, Scott Kelly. It's a long time that we've waited for this. I've covered the hopes of private space flight for some time over the last 15 years. It was always next year. Next year, we're going to put a man or a person, man or woman into space on top of a private vessel. Always next year. And next year always got to be longer and longer. Well, finally, next year came.

KELLY: That is true. It shows just how complicated this is. It's a bunch of little small miracles happening in sequence to get people into space.

I do think this is a really giant leap for more common access to space because you have a company that is able to produce these rockets and, really, do with them what they want.

And, you know, it will ultimately bring down the cost and will allow people to have this incredible experience and perspective of visiting space, seeing the earth from space, you know, being part of a program that is just such an important part of our country and our history.

So I am very excited about it.

BERMAN: Jessica Meir, to you on that subject.

MEIR: It is extraordinarily exciting for all of us, just like Scott said. And as we said before, having more capacity to send humans to space is really a benefit for everybody. It is increasing the market capacity. It is making space more accessible for everybody.

And it is just really an incredibly exciting time for us. It is almost like we're in test flight season. We have this last test flight for SpaceX. We'll have another one hopefully soon for Boeing. Pretty soon, we'll be having test flights for the Orion vehicle, NASA's vehicle built to fly us even deeper beyond lower earth orbit.

It is a very exciting time to be an astronaut and, I would say, to be a private citizen right now with all of these capabilities heading toward space tourism as well.

BERMAN: Yes. If you're a private citizen with a couple hundred million dollars at your disposal, it may be something you can enjoy in the next few years.

Douglas Brinkley, the president was there and he watched this launch. He went there on Wednesday twice to go see this launch. Obviously, it was very important to him.


There was a feeling on Wednesday that this was something important to him not just for what it means to the U.S. space program but what it means in the juxtaposition to the pandemic and the economic suffering happening in the country right now. That was Wednesday.

Now, on Saturday, you add to that the racial pain and anger and frustration we're seeing around the country following the death of George Floyd while he was in police custody.

Just reflect on that juxtaposition.

BRINKLEY: Well, look, Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, has done an amazing job of being bipartisan. He hooked up to the idea that we will bring women to the moon soon. That the next time we go back to the moon, there will be women astronauts.

So he got somebody like Nancy Pelosi on board. And this is, today, I think a triumph of the California people, Elon Musk and SpaceX, Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I mean, California is very big in the aerospace industry.

And Trump seemed to have believed in Musk. Of course, Jeff Bezos is an enemy of Donald Trump, who has blue origin, who wants to put a moon craft up. So Musk and Trump have had a kind of on-and-off relationship.

But, to me, this, for Donald Trump, shows that American exceptionalism is alive and kicking.

We've been -- China has beat us to the dark side of the moon in exploration. We've been using Russian rockets. And now, suddenly, American astronauts on American soil, working with the private sector company like SpaceX is the contractor, the premier contractor here.

I think it bodes well for Trump's message that he's trying to do that. You know, we're going to start doing things in America and not just be outsourcing to other countries. So he wanted to be a face of this.

John F. Kennedy wasn't there, when I mentioned to you about Alan Shepherd. He waited in the White House and watched it because these flights get delayed. Launches get delayed constantly.

But Trump seemed determined to be there with the vice president to bask, if you like, in the glory of this as part of his economic rejuvenation message.

BERMAN: Miles O'Brien, the coolness factor here. I'm struck by the fact that we're 20 minutes after liftoff and already one of the stages of the rockets has landed back on earth.

Obviously, they're up in this newfangled capsule with newfangled space suits and newfangled touch screens. There's a lot we haven't seen before.

O'BRIEN: It's interesting, John. Elon Musk gets style points. Doesn't he? The private sector gets style points. When you get civil servants to design a spacecraft and a space suit, you get what we saw through all those years through the shuttle and previous programs.

The Russians, their craft looked like Jules Verne. Elon Musk looks a little bit more like 2001 a "Space Odyssey."

That may seem like that's not important. But to the extent that that's all part of inspiring young people to think this is cool. And to give us all a moment to be reminded that despite all the horrible things happening in this country, we can gather together and do things that are great, that are difficult, that are risky, but also fundamentally, intrinsically beautiful.

And I think that's this particular event puts that package together. And it really speaks to the American spirit. Because this is, after all, private enterprise in action with the government as a partner. It's a public/private -- excuse me, public/private partner, a Peter Piper kind of thing. It's that kind of thing which makes America great.

BERMAN: We've got about a minute left, Scott Kelly. Does this put us closer to Mars? If that's what your dream is -- and I know for a lot of people when they think of the space program, that's their dream. Isn't necessarily the most important thing to a lot of people involved in the space program. But does this put us closer there?

KELLY: Absolutely. It puts us closer every time we send people to space, no matter how we get there. And everything we learn by having people live and work on the space station gets us closer.

But I'll quote my brother. I don't do it often. He says, "Getting to Mars is not rocket science. It's more political science."

And so it's more about having the support and the money that is required to do it.

BERMAN: As a father of identical twins, I know how painful it was for you just to quote your brother on national TV there.


BERMAN: And, Jessica, to you, I want to give you the last word here.

As the most recent person to be on the International Space Station now in U.S. soil, what's next for Bob and Doug in that capsule as they drift toward the International Space Station?

MEIR: Well, since this is a test flight, they do have some test objectives. They will have a phasing burn, which will get them in a better position to be able to rendezvous with the space station.


And they'll have some manual piloting activities and tests, which will be pretty exciting for them to be able to demonstrate those manual capabilities of the spacecraft.

And when they dock on Sunday morning, I know that Chris and Ivan and Anatoli will be excited to greet them. It's always a completely joyous occasion on the space station when we welcome new crews. And a little bit sad when one departs.

There haven't been any new astronauts or cosmonauts onboard since we lift in April. So Chris has been in the U.S. segment by himself so I know Chris he is excited to welcome Bob and Doug.

He actually has flown with Doug before. So that will be a nice reunion in space for them.

And we take good care of each other up there. So I know he'll have their favorite snacks ready and their crew quartz quarters set up. And then, they'll get to work with the rest of their test mission and also all of the International Space Stations objectives.

BERMAN: Glad to say Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are now taking good care of all of our hopes and dreams as we watch them fly, for the first time in nine years, on a capsule launched from U.S. soil and the first time ever on a private spacecraft.

Friends, thank you for being with us for this moment in history.

CNN's special live coverage continues right after this.