Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX launched four astronauts on a flight to the International Space Station on Sunday, NASA’s first full-fledged mission to send a crew into orbit aboard a privately owned spacecraft.
SpaceX’s newly designed Crew Dragon capsule, which the crew has called Resilience, took off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 19:27 Eastern time (0027 GMT on Monday) from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
“It was a turn,” astronaut Mike Hopkins of Crew Dragon told SpaceX on a mission about an hour after the cancellation. “There were many smiles.”
Crew Dragon will gradually increase its orbit over the next 27 hours through a series of onboard launches aimed at docking at the International Space Station at 11 pm on Monday. An air leak caused an unexpected drop in canister pressure less than two hours before launch, NASA officials said. But technicians said they carried out a successful leak check and the planned launch was still on.
The 27-hour journey to the space station, a orbital laboratory about 400 km above the earth, was originally scheduled to begin on Saturday. But the launch was postponed one day due to forecasts of windy winds – remnants of tropical storm Eta – which would have made it difficult for Falcon 9’s reusable booster stages to return, NASA officials said.
The astronauts donned their own white flight suits and arrived at the Kennedy Space Center take-off schedule at 4:30 pm in three white Tesla SUVs, flanked by NASA and SpaceX personnel.
SpaceX mission operator Jay Aranha, speaking from the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, told the crew to “have a great trip and know that we are all for one.”
Mission Commander Mike Hopkins responded, saying, “To all the people at NASA and SpaceX, by working together through these difficult times, you have inspired the nation of the world.”
“And now it’s time for us to do our part, Crew 1 for everyone,” Hopkins said.
Vice President Mike Pence attended the launch and said in advance that under President Donald Trump, America had “renewed our commitment to lead in human space exploration.”
Elected President Joe Biden tweeted his congratulations, saying the launch was “a testament to the power of science.”
Congratulations to NASA and SpaceX on today’s launch. It is a testament to the power of science and what we can accomplish by leveraging our innovation, ingenuity, and determination. I join all Americans and the people of Japan in wishing the astronauts Godspeed on their journey.
– Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) November 16, 2020
First private assignment
NASA calls the flight its first “operational” mission for a rocket and crew vehicle system that was ten years old in the beginning. It represents a new era of commercially developed spacecraft – owned and operated by a private entity rather than NASA – to send Americans into orbit.
A test flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon in August, with only two astronauts to and from the space station, marked NASA’s first human space mission launched from US soil in nine years after the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. In the intervening years, US astronauts had to go into orbit aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
The Resilience crew includes Commander Mike Hopkins and two NASA astronauts, mission pilot Victor Glover and physicist Shannon Walker. They were joined by the Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi and made their third trip to space after previously flying the American shuttle in 2005 and Soyuz in 2009.
Musk, billionaire SpaceX CEO, who is also CEO of electric car maker and battery maker Tesla Inc., is unlikely to have seen the overflight from the Kennedy Space Center launch pad, NASA officials said. Musk said on Saturday that he “probably” has a moderate case of COVID-19.
SpaceX and NASA have conducted contact tracking and determined that Musk had not come into contact with anyone who interacted with the astronauts.
“Our astronauts have been in quarantine for several weeks, and they should not have had contact with anyone,” NASA chief Jim Bridenstine said on Friday. “They should be in good shape.”
NASA contracted SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to develop competing space capsules that aimed to replace its shuttle program and wean the United States from relying on Russian rockets to send astronauts into space.