NASA, SpaceX launch crew rotation mission to space
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida－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 Center 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－reached orbit nine minutes later. It is due to reach the space station late Monday and remain there until spring.
"By working together through these difficult times, you've inspired the nation, the world, and in no small part the name of this incredible vehicle, Resilience," Commander Mike Hopkins said right before liftoff.
Once reaching orbit, he radioed, "That was one heck of a ride."
The Resilience crew includes commander Mike Hopkins and two fellow NASA astronauts, mission pilot Victor Glover and physicist Shannon Walker. They were joined by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, making his third trip to space after previously flying on the US shuttle in 2005 and Soyuz in 2009.
An air leak caused an unexpected drop in capsule pressure less than two hours before launch, NASA officials said. But technicians said they conducted a successful leak check, and the scheduled launch was still on.
The 27-hour ride to the space station, an orbiting laboratory some 400 kilometers above Earth, was originally scheduled to begin on Saturday. But the launch was postponed for a day due to forecasts of gusty winds－remnants of Tropical Storm Eta－that would have made a return landing for the Falcon 9's reusable booster stage difficult, NASA officials said.
NASA is calling the flight its first "operational" mission for a rocket and crew-vehicle system that was 10 years in the making. It represents a new era of commercially developed spacecraft－owned and operated by a private entity rather than NASA－for sending US astronauts into orbit.
A trial flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon in August, carrying just two astronauts to and from the space station, marked NASA's first human space mission launched from the US in nine years, following the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.
Sidelined by the coronavirus himself, SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk was forced to monitor the action from afar. He said on social media 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.