SpaceX launches astronauts on recycled capsule and ‘flight-proven’ rocket

A Falcon 9 rocket takes off from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida with four astronauts heading for the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket ferried a multinational crew into orbit at the break of dawn Friday with a spectacular sky-lighting launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, dazzling early risers along the East Coast with a flawless start to a planned six-month expedition on the International Space Station.

The mission kicked off SpaceX’s third crew flight to the space station, following a two-man test flight that launched last May and the first four-person mission that took off in Nov. 15. The four astronauts on Friday’s launch will replace the crew that has been in space since November.

“This marks many important milestones, but it really is important for getting a regular cadence of crew to the station and back,” said Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator. “And it’s going to really accelerate the research and development we’re able to do on the station.”

After a seemingly picture-perfect countdown, the Falcon 9’s on-board computer commanded its nine Merlin booster engines to ignite a few seconds before the rocket climbed off pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 5:49:02 a.m. EDT (0949:02 GMT).

Burning several tons of propellant every second, the nine engines pushed the 215-foot-tall (65-meter) Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft off the launch pad with 1.7 million pounds of ground-shaking thrust.

The Falcon 9 soared above widely scattered clouds, exceeded the speed of sound about a minute after liftoff, and rocketed into the stratosphere on a northeasterly heading from Florida’s Space Coast. Two-and-a-half minutes into the mission, the Falcon 9 shut down its main engines and the first stage separated at an altitude of more than 260,000 feet, or 80 kilometers.

Moments later, a single Merlin engine on the rocket’s second stage ignited to send the four astronauts into orbit inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft. SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California, radioed periodic status updates to the four astronauts riding the Dragon spacecraft.

An on-target burn by the second stage engine placed the Crew Dragon capsule in a nearly perfect orbit on course to reach the International Space Station for a docking at 5:10 a.m. EDT (0910 GMT) Saturday.

The Falcon 9’s first stage came back to Earth and nailed a landing on SpaceX’s drone ship holding position a few hundred miles downrange in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft, meanwhile, separated from its Falcon 9 launcher about 12 minutes into the mission. Soon after, the Dragon capsule opened the nose cone that covered the ship’s docking port for launch.

“We’re very excited to be back in space,” said Shane Kimbrough, a NASA astronaut and commander of the Crew-2 mission, the second operational Crew Dragon flight.

The spaceship’s Draco maneuvering thrusters will perform multiple burns over the next day to fine-tune the approach to the space station. If all goes according to plan, the rendezvous and docking will be fully automated, requiring no input from the Dragon’s crew.

The astronauts can take over control of the spacecraft if necessary.

Kimbrough, a retired U.S. Army colonel and Apache helicopter pilot, leads a crew full of spaceflight veterans. This mission marks the third space mission in Kimbrough’s astronaut career, and the second spaceflight for pilot Megan McArthur, an oceanographer who helped repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope aboard the space shuttle Atlantis in 2009.

Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide is on his third trip to space, and European Space Agency mission specialist Thomas Pesquet is flying in orbit for the second time.

“We had an incredible launch,” Kimbrough said in a video downlink around two hours after liftoff. “Right as the sun was rising, we took off. We chased the sun pretty quickly and caught up with it just a few minutes after we took off. That was pretty special to see the sunlight coming in shortly after liftoff.”

McArthur, who last flew in space nearly 12 years ago, said she was re-adapting to the sensations of microgravity.

“Hello, Earth,” she said. “It’s great to be back in space again after a few years for me. The ascent was incredible. The ride was really smooth. We couldn’t have asked for anything better. There may have been some hooting and giggling up here while all that was going on. We hope you enjoyed the show as well.”

By all accounts, plenty of spectators and skywatchers did enjoy the show.

The first rays of sunrise illuminate the exhaust plume from the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage engine a few minutes after launch Friday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: SpaceX

The mission took off from Florida about one hour before sunrise. The first rays of sunrise illuminated the Falcon 9 rocket’s expanding engine exhaust plume as the launched arced to the northeast over the Atlantic Ocean.

The second stage’s bright white exhaust plume, backdropped by a dark sky, was visible from South Florida all the way to New England. Launch watchers closer to the Kennedy Space Center could see the first stage pulsing control thrusters as it started descending back to a landing offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

Even the first stage’s re-entry burn was visible from the Florida coast as the booster slowed down for landing hundreds of miles away.

The booster used on Friday’s launch was the same Falcon 9 first stage that sent the Crew-1 astronauts toward the space station on SpaceX’s previous crew mission. The Crew Dragon Endeavour spaceship was refurbished and upgraded following its first flight to the space station last year, with improvements to its launch abort system, exterior paneling, and interior layout.

The Crew Dragon Endeavour launched on SpaceX’s first astronaut mission last May, and splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico in August. McArthur launched in the pilot’s seat of the Crew Dragon capsule, the same seat her husband — NASA astronaut Bob Behnken — rode in during last year’s demonstration flight.

Astronauts Thomas Pesquet, Megan McArthur, Shane Kimbrough, and Akihiko Hoshide walk out of the Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center early Friday for the trip to pad 39A to board the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Reusing rockets is nothing new for SpaceX. The company has re-flown Falcon rocket boosters 60 times, but this was the first time SpaceX has reused a rocket and spacecraft to ferry astronauts to orbit.

“The future is looking good,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, chief designer, and CEO. “I think we’re at the dawn of a new era in space exploration.”

SpaceX shared the cost of developing the Crew Dragon spacecraft with NASA, which awarded the company contracts worth more than $3.1 billion to help fund the design, construction, and testing of the commercial crew capsule. Last week, SpaceX won a $2.9 billion contract from NASA to build the human-rated lunar lander that will attempt to deliver astronauts to the surface of the Moon for the first time since 1972.

The lander — derived from SpaceX’s privately-funded next-generation Starship rocket — is part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to extend human exploration to the Moon in the 2020s with a series of landings at the lunar south pole.

SpaceX has at least four more crew rotation missions on its contract with NASA, which could buy more Crew Dragon flights to meet the space station’s needs later in the 2020s. The space agency turned over responsibility for space station crew and cargo transportation to the private sector after the retirement of the space shuttle.

NASA also has a contract with Boeing to fly crews to space station. But Boeing’s program has faced lengthy delays, and the company’s Starliner capsule has not yet launched with astronauts.

The arrival of the Crew-2 astronauts at the space station is the third step in a four-part crew changeout this month on the orbiting research outpost.

On April 9, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with two Russian cosmonauts and one NASA astronaut. They replaced an outgoing crew of two Russians and one American, who landed on their Soyuz descent craft April 17.

NASA commander Mike Hopkins, pilot Victor Glover, mission specialist Soichi Noguchi, and astronaut Shannon Walker are packing up for their flight back to Earth on the Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft April 28 to wrap up the Crew-1 mission.

For a few days, the space station will have 11 occupants before the departure of the Crew-1 astronauts.

In addition to its NASA-sponsored missions, SpaceX is planning a series of private astronaut missions on Crew Dragon capsules.

The first all-civilian mission to orbit, known as Inspiration4, is scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center in September.

Led and funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman, the Inspiration4 mission is intended to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Isaacman will be joined on the three-day mission by Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant at St. Jude, pilot and science educator Sian Proctor, and Chris Sembroski, an engineer from the Seattle area selected in a charity competition.

The Inspiration4 mission won’t dock with the space station. Instead, the crew will ride their Crew Dragon capsule to an altitude of 335 miles (539 kilometers) and circle the planet for three days before coming home.

NASA’s next crew mission, known as Crew-3, is tentatively scheduled to take off from Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 23. The four astronauts on that flight will replace Kimbrough’s crew after six months on the space station.

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