CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) – SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station on Sunday on the first full-fledged taxi flight by a private company for NASA.
The Falcon rocket thundered into the night from the Kennedy Space Center with three Americans and a Japanese, the second crew to be launched by SpaceX. The kite pod at the top – dubbed Resilience by its crew given the year’s many challenges, especially COVID-19 – reached orbit nine minutes later. It should reach the space station late Monday and stay there until spring.
“By working together in these difficult times, you have inspired the nation, the world and, last but not least, the name of this incredible vehicle, Resilience,” said Commander Mike Hopkins shortly before the start.
When he got into orbit he sparkled, “That was a hell of a trip.”
SpaceX’s founder and CEO Elon Musk was excluded from the coronavirus itself and had to monitor the action remotely. He tweeted that he “most likely” had a moderate case of COVID-19. According to NASA guidelines at Kennedy Space Center, anyone who tests positive for coronavirus must be quarantined and isolated.
The launch on Sunday follows just a few months after the SpaceX test flight with two pilots. NASA’s hope begins for a long series of crew rotations between the US and the space station after years of delay. According to official figures, more people mean more scientific research in the orbit laboratory.
Cheers and applause broke out at SpaceX Mission Control in Hawthorne, California after the capsule entered orbit and the first stage booster landed on a floating platform in the Atlantic. Musk tweeted a single red heart.
At Kennedy he was replaced by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. She wouldn’t tell Musk the whereabouts, but said it was “very closely related to the launch”.
“I have a number of texts to prove it,” Shotwell told reporters.
The flight to the space station – 27 1/2 hours door to door – should be fully automated, although the crew can take control if necessary. SpaceX had to deal with pressure pump spikes once the capsule reached orbit, but quickly resolved the problem.
With COVID-19 still on the upswing, NASA continued the safety arrangements it had made for the SpaceX crew to launch in May. The astronauts and their families went into quarantine in October. All starting forces wore masks and the number of guests at Kennedy was limited. Even the two astronauts on the first SpaceX crew flight stayed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Vice President Mike Pence, Chairman of the National Space Council, accompanied NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to watch the launch.
“I didn’t start breathing for about a minute after launch,” said Pence during a stop at SpaceX Launch Control to congratulate the workers.
In front of the gates of the space center, spectators crowded the nearby beaches and cities. NASA feared that a weekend launch – coupled with a dramatic nighttime launch – could lead to a superspreader event. They told the crowd to wear masks and keep safe distances. Similar requests for the SpaceX crew’s first launch on May 30 went unheeded.
The crew of three men and one woman, led by Hopkins, an Air Force Colonel, called their capsule resilience not only a nod to the pandemic but also to racial injustice and controversial politics. It’s about as diverse as the space crews, including physicist Shannon Walker, Navy Cmdr. Victor Glover, the first black astronaut on a long-term space station mission, and Soichi Noguchi of Japan, who was the first to launch three types of spacecraft in nearly 40 years.
They drove to the launch pad in Teslas – another Musk company – after exchanging high fives and hand hugs with their children and spouses huddled by the open car windows.
In addition to the slim design and high-tech features, the Dragon capsule is quite spacious and can accommodate up to seven people. Previous space capsules were launched with no more than three. The extra space in this newest capsule has been used for science experiments and supplies.
The four astronauts will join two Russians and one American who flew to the space station from Kazakhstan last month. The orbiting outpost flew over the launch site only half a minute before take-off.
The first stage booster is expected to be recycled by SpaceX for the crew’s next launch. This is currently planned for late March to prepare the newly launched astronauts for a return to Earth in April.
Over the next 15 months, SpaceX should fly about seven kite missions for NASA, both for crew and cargo, Shotwell said.
While Bridenstine found it was a wonderful start, he emphasized, “This is a six-month mission and the first of many.”
“When you go into space there is always a risk and we will always be diligent,” he added.
SpaceX and NASA wanted the booster to recover so much that they delayed the launch attempt by a day to give the floating platform time to reach its position in the Atlantic on the weekend after rough seas.
Boeing, NASA’s other contractually agreed crew transporter, was a year ago. A repetition of the software-plagued test flight from last December without a crew is planned for the beginning of next year. The first astronaut flight of the Starliner capsule is not expected before summer.
NASA turned to private companies to move cargo and crew to the space station after the shuttle fleet was withdrawn from service in 2011. SpaceX qualified for both. After Kennedy re-launched astronauts, NASA can stop buying seats on Russian Soyuz rockets. The last one cost $ 90 million.
SpaceX’s first crew commander Doug Hurley noted that it’s not just about saving money or reducing the training burden on crews.
“Bottom line: I think it’s just better for us to fly out of the US if we can,” he told The Associated Press last week.
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