SpaceX launched four astronauts into orbit on Friday using a recycled rocket and capsule, the third crew flight in less than a year for Elon Musk’s rapidly expanding company.
Astronauts from the United States, Japan and France are expected to reach the International Space Station early Saturday morning after a 23-hour journey in the same Dragon capsule used by SpaceX’s debut crew last May. They will spend six months in the orbiting laboratory.
It was the first time SpaceX has reused a capsule and rocket to launch astronauts for NASA, after years of demonstrating station refueling capability. The rocket was used last November on the company’s second astronaut flight.
Embracing the trend, spacecraft commander Shane Kimbrough and his crew weeks ago wrote their initials in the soot of the rocket, hoping to start a tradition.
“I’m glad I’m back in space,” Kimbrough radioed once the capsule was safely in orbit.
For NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, it was a bit of déjà vu. She launched herself in the same place in the same capsule as her husband, Bob Behnken, during the first flight of the SpaceX crew. This time it was Behnken and their seven-year-old son who waved at them. McArthur blew kisses and offered virtual hugs.
Japanese Akihiko Hoshide and Frenchman Thomas Pesquet, the first European to jump into a commercial crew capsule, also flew to SpaceX on Friday.
It was a jaw-dropping scene: the launch plume shone against the dark sky, reflecting the sunlight at high altitudes.
“Simply spectacular,” said NASA administrator Steve Jurczyk.
For Friday’s automated flight, SpaceX replaced some valves and heat shields and installed new parachutes on the capsule, named Endeavor in honor of NASA’s retired space shuttle. Otherwise, the spacecraft is the same vehicle that flew before.
“We are thrilled to once again have a crew aboard the Endeavor,” SpaceX Launch Control radioed shortly before takeoff.
All four astronauts joined hands when Kimbrough noticed it was the first time in more than 20 years that US, European and Japanese astronauts had launched together.
The first stage booster landed on an ocean platform nine minutes after takeoff.
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Rapid reusability is critical to Musk’s effort to open up space for everyone, land NASA’s next moonwalkers, and, by far his highest goal, build a city on Mars.
Musk will go a long way towards achieving that first goal with a private flight in September. It will be followed in October by the fourth SpaceX crew launch for NASA.
SpaceX resumed the station game for NASA after the space agency shuttles retired in 2011, starting with refueling runs the following year. The big draw was last year’s return of astronaut launches to Florida, after years of relying on Russia for racing.
“It’s great to have this regular cadence again,” said Kennedy director Robert Cabana, a former shuttle commander.
Boeing, NASA’s other contracted manned transporter, is not expected to begin launching NASA astronauts until early next year. First, it has to repeat a test flight of an empty Starliner capsule, possibly in late summer, to make up for its software-plagued debut in December 2019.
Last week, SpaceX beat out two other companies, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, to land astronauts on the moon for NASA in three or more years. They will descend to the lunar surface with Starship, the shiny, bullet-shaped spaceship that Musk is testing in the skies of Texas, with burning and explosive results.