NASA and private rocket company SpaceX launched four astronauts into orbit late on Wednesday en route to the International Space Station, including a veteran spacewalker and two younger crewmates chosen to join NASA’s future lunar missions.
The SpaceX-built launch vehicle, consisting of a Crew Dragon capsule perched atop a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket, climbed into the night sky from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as its nine Merlin engines roared to life at about 9 p.m. (7:30am IST on Thursday).
Liftoff of the Dragon spacecraft, named Endurance by the crew, was aired live from Cape Canaveral on NASA TV. Intermittent rain and clouds over the Cape earlier in the day had cast doubt on launch prospects, but the weather cleared by flight time, NASA said.
Live video footage webcast by NASA showed the four crew members seated calmly and strapped into the pressurized cabin of their gleaming white SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, wearing their helmeted white and black flight suits several minutes after liftoff.
Within about 10 minutes of liftoff, the rocket’s upper stage had delivered the crew capsule to Earth orbit, according to launch commentators. The rocket’s reusable lower stage separated from the rest of the spacecraft and flew itself back to Earth, touching down safely on a landing platform floating on a vessel in the Atlantic.
The three American astronauts and their European Space Agency crewmate were due to arrive at the space station, orbiting some 250 miles (400 km) above the Earth, on Thursday evening following a flight of about 22 hours.
The flight marks the third “operational” space station crew sent to orbit aboard a Dragon capsule since NASA and SpaceX teamed up to resume space launches from American soil last year, following a nine-year hiatus at the end of the US space shuttle program in 2011.
“Crew 3” includes two members of NASA’s latest graduating class of astronauts — Raja Chari, 44, a US Air Force combat jet and test pilot serving as mission commander, and mission specialist Kayla Barron, 34, a US Navy submarine officer and nuclear engineer.
The team’s designated pilot and second-in-command is veteran astronaut Tom Marshburn, 61, a medical doctor and former NASA flight surgeon who has logged two previous spaceflights to the space station and four spacewalks. Rounding out the crew is European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Matthias Maurer, 51, of Germany, a materials science engineer.
Chari, Barron and Maurer were making their debut spaceflights with Wednesday’s launch, becoming the 599th, 600th and 601st humans in space.
Both Chari and Barron also are among the first group of 18 astronauts selected for NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions, aimed at returning humans to the moon later this decade, over a half century after the Apollo lunar program ended.
It is the fourth crewed flight overall in 17 months under NASA’s public-private partnership with SpaceX, the rocket company founded in 2002 by Musk, the billionaire chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc
The first was a two-astronaut trial run to the space station in May 2020, followed by the maiden NASA-SpaceX operational “Crew 1” in November of that year.
“Crew 2” was launched to the space station in April of this year, and just returned safely to Earth on Monday night with a splashdown capping a record 199 days in orbit.
The latest mission also follows a flurry of recent high-profile astro-tourism flights, including the SpaceX launch in September of “Inspiration 4,” the first all-civilian crew sent to orbit without a professional astronaut on board.
Earlier this month, 90-year-old actor William Shatner, famed for playing Captain James T. Kirk on the original 1960s “Star Trek” TV series, made headlines riding aboard a rocketship launched by billionaire Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin to become the oldest person to fly in space.
The “Crew 3” team, on arriving at the space station, will be welcomed aboard the orbiting laboratory by its three current occupants — two cosmonauts from Russia and Belarus and a US astronaut who shared a Soyuz flight to orbit with them earlier this year.
© Thomson Reuters 2021