Astronauts describe thrilling ride to orbit on Falcon 9 rocket


When the countdown hit zero last Friday and the engines powering a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage roared to life for takeoff, the four astronauts strapped into a SpaceX Crew Dragon some 21 stories up started laughing.

“So we’re sitting on the launch pad, obviously, and when the engines lit, we all started laughing because it just felt so awesome and powerful,” Shane Kimbrough, commander of the Crew-2 ferry flight to the International Space Station, said in an interview Thursday with CBS News. “Shortly after that, we started accelerating, heading uphill.

“It was a great ride, very smooth,” he said. “I don’t remember any surprises, except we were just all very happy. We were all pretty excited to be on orbit again and feel that incredible acceleration.”

Kimbrough, co-pilot Megan McArthur, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Japanese flier Akihiko Hoshide blasted off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center last Friday morning and docked at the space station the next day.

Their arrival boosted the lab’s crew from seven to 11, but only until this weekend when the four astronauts they are replacing board their own Crew Dragon capsule and return to Earth to close out a 166-day mission.

“It’s great to be back on station, it’s great to be floating around again,” said Kimbrough, veteran of a space shuttle flight in 2008 and launch aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a 173-day stay aboard the station in 2016-17. “All of us are really enjoying that, relearning how to fly. So that’s been fun.

“Right now we have 11 on board, and it’s been really a lot of fun learning from the folks that have been on board for a while and learning all the new things. It hasn’t changed a whole lot since I was here last time. … It’s been really fun, though, we’re excited for Crew-1 to head back home here pretty soon whenever the weather allows.”

McArthur spent 13 days in space in 2009 to help repair the Hubble Space Telescope, “and this is my first time to the space station. First impression, of course, is that the living space is much, much bigger. You really have to be precise with your flying as so as not to crash into all the other people that are up here.”

“So I’m learning how to fly,” she said. “It feels really good. And it’s just an amazing, amazing place.”

Known for favoring lively footwear, McArthur did a zero-gravity flip toward the end of the interview, showing off her socks. Printed on the bottom of her right sock: “IF YOU CAN READ THIS” and on her left: “BRING ME SOME COOKIES.”

Kimbrough, McArthur, Pesquet and Hoshide are the third crew to launch aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon. Kimbrough, one of the few astronauts who has now launched aboard three different spacecraft, said the climb to space atop a Falcon 9 was thrilling.

“The first stage was, I would say, fairly smooth,” Kimbrough said. “There was a little bit of rumbling going on, but pretty smooth.”

About two-and-a-half minutes into the flight, the nine Merlin first stage engines shut down, the stage fell away and the single vacuum-rated Merlin powering the second stage ignited, giving the crew “a nice kick in the pants.”

“So we got to experience that M-vac engine lighting, and then kind of a little thrust back in our seats and then pure acceleration for the next six-and-a-half minutes or so,” Kimbrough said. “It was a bit rumbly, it kind of was like … being on a rocky road in a vehicle.”

The crew was pushed back in their seats with about four-and-a-half times the normal force of gravity compared to the 3 “Gs” Kimbrough and McArthur experienced during their shuttle launches.

“It just kind of felt like this rumble for about six-and-a-half minutes as we increased our speed and got up into space,” he said. “Pretty spectacular.”

The crew was in the process of winding down after a busy first day in space when flight controllers told them to get back in their spacesuits because of a predicted close encounter with a piece of space debris. It turned out to be a false alarm, but it highlighted a growing concern in the space community.

Wednesday night, SpaceX launched another batch of 60 Starlink internet satellites, pushing the total launched to date to 1,505. OneWeb also is launching a constellation of broadband satellites and other companies, including Amazon, have plans for their own “mega constellations.”

With more and more satellites populating low-Earth orbit, some analysts are concerned about an increased probability of collisions that would generate threatening space debris.

“It’s definitely something that we need to keep a careful eye on and keep aware of where all these things are, and the best ways to track them and how to get the information to the people that need it,” McArthur said. “It was quite an event for us.

“We were kind of winding down for the evening and getting ready to go to bed, rolled out our sleeping bags and gotten into our sleepwear when we got the notification that we needed to get in our (space)suits,” she said. “We got there just in time, just in time for them to call us out that it had been a false alarm.”

The crew responded per their training “and we felt like the team handled it really well,” she added. “But it’s definitely something that as a spacefaring nation … we’re going to need to keep each other apprised of what’s out there and how to avoid it as the space gets more and more crowded.”

SpaceX plans to follow the Crew-2 mission with launch of four civilian, non-astronaut fliers this fall, a flight purchased by billionaire entrepreneur and jet pilot Jared Isaacman to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

The “Inspiration4” crew will not visit the space station. Their Crew Dragon will simply orbit Earth for a few days, providing spectacular views from a higher altitude than the station. Asked if she had any reservations about commercial spaceflight and non-professional astronauts, McArthur said she welcomes their participation.

“Of course, part of our mission as astronauts is to try to inspire people, inspire the next generation of explorers,” she said. But “we’re engineers, so maybe we’re not always great with words.”

“These people are going to experience some of the same things that we’re experiencing, and they’re going to be able to share it in a different way, maybe, than we normally do. I think it’s gonna be really exciting.”