Liftoff! SpaceX successfully launched the Crew Dragon capsule on its second non-test crewed mission Friday, setting a number of firsts as it continues to support NASA’s work at the International Space Station.
A Falcon 9 rocket carrying the capsule launched at 5:49 a.m. Eastern time from Launch Complex 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The capsule carried NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet.
The mission marks the first time SpaceX has flown astronauts with either a re-used booster or a re-used capsule. When the capsule reaches the ISS, it will also mark the first time two Crew Dragon capsules will be docked at the station at the same time.
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“Glad to be back in space, for all of us, and we’ll send our regards to Crew-1 when we get there,” Kimbrough said moments after the capsule separated from the second stage.
Around 12 minutes after launch, Pesquet showed his excitement with a love heart gesture to the camera:
Around nine minutes after the launch, the Falcon 9 rocket successfully landed on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. This marked SpaceX’s 80th landing for an orbital-class rocket booster.
The four are scheduled to autonomously dock with the International Space Station on Saturday, April 24, at around 5:10 a.m. Eastern time. That means the capsule will take around 23 hours to arrive at the station. The capsule contains 12 pre-packaged meals for each of them, plus snacks and over 14 gallons of water, to help them make the journey.
The crew will spend six months at the station, returning to Earth no earlier than October 31. At the station, the crew will have access to a food warmer and access to freeze-dried food to enable more variety. The station manages to recycle around 90 percent of its water, but researchers are aiming to improve these numbers for future missions to the Moon and Mars.
During their stay, the astronauts will help upgrade the ISS’ solar panels. The panels are scheduled to be delivered to the space station in the summer.
Steve Jurczyk, the acting NASA administrator, was jubilant after the successful launch.
“Watching a launch, particularly a human space launch, will never get old for me,” Jurczyk said in a post-launch interview. “It was just spectacular.”
It’s a big moment for SpaceX, which developed the Crew Dragon as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program. After the space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA was forced to use Soyuz rockets taking off from Kazakhstan to send its astronauts to the ISS.
The Commercial Crew program was aimed at bringing NASA’s crewed flights a bit closer to home. In 2014, NASA announced it would partner with SpaceX and Boeing to develop a means of reaching the ISS. SpaceX’s contract, NASA announced, had a maximum potential value of $2.6 billion.
The Crew-2 mission marks a number of firsts. It’s the first time SpaceX has flown astronauts using either a re-used booster or a re-used capsule. The Falcon 9 previously flew on the Crew-1 mission in November 2020, while the Crew Dragon previously flew on the Demo-2 mission in May 2020. Re-using rocket components is key to SpaceX’s goal of reducing rocket flight costs.
It will also mark the first time that two Crew Dragon capsules have been docked to the ISS at the same time. The Crew-1 capsule, which sent four astronauts to the ISS in November 2020, is scheduled to depart with all four crew members on April 28.
While SpaceX has now completed its third crewed flight for NASA, Boeing still has yet to launch a single astronaut with its CST-100 Starliner capsule. In December 2019, the Starliner launched on what was expected to be its final uncrewed test mission. While the capsule launched as expected, an internal clock fault caused the vehicle to act incorrectly moments after launch.
Following Boeing’s failure, SpaceX has soared further ahead — both physically and metaphorically. On April 17, Boeing announced its next uncrewed test flight will take place no earlier than August 2021.
SpaceX and NASA won’t be waiting too long to use Crew Dragon again. NASA is targeting no earlier than October 23 for its Crew-3 mission. The mission will send NASA astronauts Raja Chari and Tom Marshburn, ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, and a fourth unnamed crew member, for a six-month stay at the ISS.
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