SpaceX launches to space station, kicking off regular crew flights from US

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Cape Canaveral: SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station on Sunday on the first full-fledged taxi flight for NASA by a private company.

The Falcon rocket thundered into the night from Kennedy Space Centre with three Americans and one 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, most notably COVID-19 — was due to reach the space station late Monday and remain there until spring.

A SpaceX Falcon9 rocket, with the Crew Dragon capsule attached, lift’s off from Kennedy Space Centre’s Launch Complex 39-A in Cape Canaveral, Florida.Credit:AP

Sidelined by the virus himself, SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk was forced to monitor the action from afar. He tweeted that he “most likely” had a moderate case of COVID-19. NASA policy at Kennedy Space Center requires anyone testing positive for coronavirus to quarantine and remain isolated.

Sunday’s launch follows by just a few months SpaceX’s two-pilot test flight. It kicks off what NASA hopes will be a long series of crew rotations between the US and the space station, after years of delay. It frees the US from relying on Russia to launch NASA astronauts into orbit, the only option after NASA retired the Space Shuttle in 2011.

“This is another historic moment,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Friday. But he noted: “Make no mistake: vigilance is always required on every flight.”

The flight to the space station — 27 1/2 hours door to door — should be entirely automated, although the crew can take control if needed.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard is seen illuminated by spotlights on the launch pad in Florida.Credit:NASA

With COVID-19 still surging, NASA continued the safety precautions put in place for SpaceX’s crew launch in May. The astronauts went into quarantine with their families in October. All launch personnel wore masks, and the number of guests at Kennedy was limited. Even the two astronauts on the first SpaceX crew flight stayed behind at Johnson Space Centre in Houston.

Vice President Mike Pence, chairman of the National Space Council, travelled from Washington to watch the launch.

Outside the space centre gates, officials anticipated hundreds of thousands of spectators to jam nearby beaches and towns.

NASA worried a weekend liftoff — coupled with a dramatic nighttime launch — could lead to a superspreader event. They urged the crowds to wear masks and maintain safe distances. Similar pleas for SpaceX’s first crew launch on May 30 went unheeded.

The three-men, one-woman crew led by Commander Mike Hopkins, an Air Force colonel, named their capsule Resilience in a nod not only to the pandemic, but also racial injustice and contentious politics. It’s about as diverse as space crews come, including physicist Shannon Walker, Navy Commander Victor Glover, the first black astronaut on a long-term space station mission, and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, who became the first person in almost 40 years to launch on three types of spacecraft.

AP

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