SpaceX launches 2nd crew, regular station crew flights begin

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CAP CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station on Sunday in the first full-fledged NASA taxi flight by a private company.

The Falcon rocket thundered through the night from the Kennedy Space Center with three Americans and a Japanese, the second crew to be launched by SpaceX. The Dragon capsule on top – named Resilience by its crew in light of this year’s many challenges, including COVID-19 – reached orbit nine minutes later. It is expected to reach the space station late Monday and stay there until spring.

“By working together during these difficult times, you have inspired the nation, the world and, in large part, the name of this incredible vehicle, Resilience,” Captain Mike Hopkins said just before take off.

Once in orbit, he said over the radio, “It was a hell of a race. “

Sidelined by the coronavirus itself, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has been forced to monitor the action from afar. He tweeted that he “very likely” had a moderate case of COVID-19. NASA policy at the Kennedy Space Center requires that anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus be quarantined and remain in isolation.

Sunday’s launch follows SpaceX’s two-pilot test flight by a few months. It is launching what NASA hopes will be a long series of crew rotations between the United States and the space station, after years of delay. More people means more scientific research in the orbiting lab, officials said.

Cheers and applause erupted at SpaceX Mission Control in Hawthorne, Calif., After the capsule reached orbit and the first-stage thruster 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 didn’t want to say where Musk was, but said he was “closely related to the launch.”

“I have a series of texts to prove it,” Shotwell told reporters.

The flight to the space station – 27 and a half hours door-to-door – is expected to 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 fixed the issue.

As COVID-19 continues to escalate, NASA continued the security measures put in place for the SpaceX crew launch in May. The astronauts entered quarantine with their families in October. All launch personnel wore masks and the number of guests at Kennedy was limited. Even the two astronauts from SpaceX’s first crew flight stayed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Vice President Mike Pence, Chairman of the National Space Council, joined NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to attend the launch.

“I didn’t start breathing until about a minute after it took off,” Pence said during a stop at SpaceX Launch Control to congratulate the workers.

Outside the gates of the space center, spectators crowded into nearby beaches and towns. NASA feared that a weekend takeoff – coupled with a spectacular nighttime launch – could lead to a mass-market event. They urged the crowd to wear masks and maintain safe distances. Similar calls for SpaceX’s first crew launch on May 30 have gone unheeded.

The three-man and one-woman crew led by Air Force colonel Hopkins named their capsule Resilience in a nod to not only the pandemic, but racial injustice as well. 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 the Japanese Soichi Noguchi, who became the first person in nearly 40 years to embark on three types of spacecraft.

They made their way to the launch pad at Teslas – another Musk company – after exchanging hands and hugs with their children and spouses, who cuddled up against the open windows of the car.

Besides its sleek design and high-tech features, the Dragon capsule is quite spacious – it can carry up to seven people. Previous space capsules have been launched with no more than three. The extra space in this new capsule was used for science experiments and supplies.

The four astronauts will join two Russians and an American who flew to the space station last month from Kazakhstan. The orbiting outpost flew over the launch site just half a minute before takeoff.

The first stage thruster is expected to be recycled by SpaceX for the next crew launch. This is currently scheduled for late March, which would set up the newly launched astronauts for a return to Earth in April.

Over the next 15 months, SpaceX is expected to complete about seven Dragon missions for NASA, both crew and freighter, Shotwell said.

While Bridenstine noted that it was a nice launch, he stressed, “This is a six month mission and this is the first in a long series.

“When you are flying in space there are always risks and we will always be diligent,” he added.

SpaceX and NASA wanted the booster to recover so badly that they delayed the launch attempt by a day, to give the floating platform time to reach its position in the Atlantic over the weekend. after rough seas.

Boeing, NASA’s other contracted crew carrier, is a year behind schedule. A repeat of last December’s unmanned software-infested test flight is halted until early next year, with the Starliner capsule’s first astronaut flight not scheduled until the summer.

NASA turned to private companies to transport cargo and crew to the space station, after the shuttle fleet retired in 2011. SpaceX qualified for both. With Kennedy back in the astronaut launch action, NASA may stop buying seats on Russian Soyuz rockets. The last one cost $ 90 million.

SpaceX First Crew Commander Doug Hurley noted that it’s not just about saving money or easing the burden of crew training.

“Bottom line: I think it’s better for us to fly from the United States if we can do it,” he told The Associated Press last week.

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The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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