Running a day late, a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying a NASA commander, a Danish co-pilot, a Japanese astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut rocketed into orbit early Saturday and set off after the International Space Station for a six-month tour of duty.
With Marine Corps helicopter test pilot Jasmin Moghbeli and European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen monitoring cockpit displays, the crew’s Falcon 9 rocket roared to life at 3:27 a.m. EDT and majestically climbed away from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center atop 1.7 million pounds of thrust.
Launching on a northeasterly trajectory that matched that of the space station, the Falcon 9 smoothly accelerated as its nine first-stage engines consumed propellants, putting on a fiery overnight spectacle for area residents and tourists.
Two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the first stage was jettisoned to fly itself back to a successful landing at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station while the second stage continued the climb to orbit.
Nine minutes after liftoff, the second stage engine shut down as planned and three minutes after that, the Crew Dragon spacecraft was released to fly on its own.
“Hello Crew-7,” the SpaceX launch director radioed. “On behalf of the entire SpaceX launch and recovery team, I’m honored to welcome Dragon’s first ever all-international crew to orbit. Godspeed, Crew-7.”
“Thanks for the ride, it was awesome!” Moghbeli replied. “On behalf of Andy, Satoshi, (Konstantin) and I, we’d like to thank the multitude of people who brought us to this unique moment. We may have four crew members on board from four different nations — Denmark, Japan, Russia and the USA — but we’re a united team with a united mission. … Go Crew-7! Awesome ride!”
If all goes well, Moghbeli, Mogensen, Japanese astronaut-surgeon Satoshi Furukawa and Russian cosmonaut Konstantin Borisov will catch up with the space station early Sunday, matching the lab’s 260-mile-high altitude and 17,000 mph velocity.
Continuing its automated approach, the Crew Dragon is expected to dock at the Harmony module’s space-facing port at 8:39 a.m., 29 hours after launch.
SpaceX has now launched eight Crew Dragons to the space station for NASA — one piloted test flight and seven operational crew rotation missions — along with two privately funded commercial flights with non-government astronauts.
NASA and SpaceX had planned to launch the Crew-7 mission early Friday, but the flight was scrubbed six hours before launch to resolve “open paperwork” needed to verify that an oxygen valve in the Crew Dragon’s life support system would work with the required safety margin.
Another problem cropped up during the final stages of the countdown Saturday: a sensor reading indicating a possible nitrogen tetroxide leak in the Crew Dragon’s propulsion system. Known as NTO, nitrogen tetroxide is an extremely toxic propellant, but with just minutes to spare, SpaceX engineers concluded the leak was so small is posed no threat to the crew or the six-month mission.
Once at the station, Moghbeli and her crewmates will be welcomed aboard by commander Sergei Prokopyev, Dmitri Petelin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, who launched to the lab nearly a full year ago aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. Also on hand: Crew-6 commander Stephen Bowen, pilot Woody Hoburg, United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Alneyadi and cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev.
Moghbeli and company are replacing Bowen and his Crew-6 colleagues. Launched last March 2, Bowen’s crew plans to undock from the station after a five-day handover, splashing down off the coast of Florida the next day to wrap up a six-month mission.
Hoburg had some advice for the Crew-7 replacements.
“They’ll be very focused on their launch, their rendezvous, their docking,” he said from orbit Wednesday. “And then once they get here, the timescales change completely. We all feel like we want to go 100 miles an hour and put our training to use and be really effective right away. But it’s a long road ahead.
“And so they’ll hopefully have a bit of time to just relax, enjoy themselves and get into the groove of living and working up here aboard the space station.”:
Two weeks after Crew-6 departs, Russia plans to launch the Soyuz MS-24/70S spacecraft carrying cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko, Nikolai Chub and NASA’s Loral O’Hara to the space station. Liftoff is expected on September 15.
Kononenko’s crew will replace Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio, who plan to close out a marathon 371-day mission with landing in Kazakhstan on September 27. Launched last September 21, they originally planned to come home in March, but their Soyuz suffered a massive coolant leak in December.
A replacement Soyuz was launched in February, but the crew’s stay aboard the station was extended six months to put the Russian flight sequence back on its normal schedule. As a result, Rubio will set a new U.S. single flight record, eclipsing astronaut Mark Vande Hei’s current 355-day mark on September 11.
The late cosmonaut Valery Polyakov holds the world record for the longest single spaceflight — 437 days — a mark set aboard the Russian Mir space station in 1994-95. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly was the first American to log nearly a year in space, followed by Vande Hei and now, Rubio.
“Frank thought when he flew to space he would be here for six months,” said Hoburg. “And part way through his mission, he found out that it was extended to a year. He’s been amazing to work with. Frank is making a huge sacrifice, being away from his family for so long, and I just want to recognize the service he’s given to us aboard the space station.”
Kononenko and Chubb also plan to spend a full year aboard the International Space Station. Next March, another Soyuz will blast off carrying veteran commander Oleg Novitskiy, NASA’s Tracy Caldwell-Dyson and Belarus researcher Marina Vasilevskaya.
Novitskiy, Vasilevskaya and O’Hara will return to Earth about 10 days later. Kononenko, Chubb and Caldwell-Dyson will come down together next September.