Despite warnings from NASA officials and the risks implied by the current pandemic, which has so far claimed over 100,000 lives in the U.S., approximately 150,000 people gathered on Florida's space coast to watch SpaceX's first attempt at launching astronauts to space Wednesday (May 27).
SpaceX attempted to launch its Crew Dragon spacecraft with two veteran NASA astronauts from NASA's Kennedy Space Center as part of the Demo-2 test flight to the International Space Station. Unfortunately, bad weather delayed the launch to no earlier than Saturday (May 30).
Despite the risks of the coronavirus pandemic (there have been over 52,000 cases and 2,300 deaths related to the novel coronavirus in Florida so far), stormy weather and a tornado warning, approximately 150,000 people traveled to watch the event. "We are still running cell phone data and other reports for possible additional insight, but the estimated number of viewers in person was 150,000," Florida's Space Coast Office of Tourism told Space.com in an email.
Full coverage: SpaceX's historic Demo-2 astronaut launch explained
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine made a public announcement before the launch, urging people to do the exact opposite of what these visitors did: stay home. Bridenstine said that people should watch the launch virtually, as full launch coverage was available live on NASA TV and, by gathering and not social distancing, there is a risk of spreading or contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Kennedy Space Center was not even open to visitors for SpaceX's launch attempt on May 27, but its visitor center reopened to the public Thursday (May 28). NASA scheduled the facility's big reopening for after the SpaceX launch. But, as photos from the event show, people still came in droves and packed into Florida's nearby beaches and the causeway, desperate to get a peek at the launch.
“Not many masks were sighted among the onlookers. Crowds were far smaller than for high-profile launches of the past and between the COVID-19 crisis and bad weather ... NASA had urged spectators to stay away” and watch on TV. https://t.co/5JoeIUlDsE via @Florida_TodayMay 27, 2020
The crowds of spectators, who filled highway lanes, creating serious traffic jams on their drives home following the launch delay, were impressive. However, if this launch didn't take place during a pandemic, approximately 500,000 people could've been expected on the space coast, Dale Ketcham, the vice president of government & external relations at Space Florida, told Space.com in an email.
Florida has recently begun to loosen its restrictions, originally imposed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, by reopening businesses and public spaces like beaches. It is yet to be seen how many people will return to Kennedy (which will by then be open to the public) this Saturday for the next launch date.
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Chelsea Gohd joined Space.com as an intern in the summer of 2018 and returned as a Staff Writer in 2019. After receiving a B.S. in Public Health, she worked as a science communicator at the American Museum of Natural History. Chelsea has written for publications including Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine, Live Science, All That is Interesting, AMNH Microbe Mondays blog, The Daily Targum and Roaring Earth. When not writing, reading or following the latest space and science discoveries, Chelsea is writing music, singing, playing guitar and performing with her band Foxanne (@foxannemusic). You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd.