Four astronauts are cruising to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX capsule, in the company’s first crewed trip with previously flown equipment.
The Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the orbiting lab early Saturday, slightly more than 23 hours after blasting off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 5:49 a.m. in Florida. The capsule was performing as expected in orbit Friday about 125 miles above Earth. The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket landed on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
“We wish you a great mission,” SpaceX launch engineer Jack Healy told the crew minutes before liftoff. “Good luck and enjoy the ride.”
The voyage on a capsule and rocket that have flown before marks another milestone for Space Exploration Technologies’ success at pioneering reusability in the launch business. Founder Elon Musk has championed the goal of designing spacecraft for multiple missions as the only practical and economical method to lower launch costs and expand human exploration — specifically to Mars.
The Dragon capsule on Friday’s mission already had taken two astronauts to and from the space station last year on SpaceX’s first crewed test flight for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Falcon 9 rocket on the latest flight last flew in November to carry four astronauts to the space station for SpaceX’s first regular ferry trip for NASA, a mission known as Crew-1.
At a post-launch news conference, Musk talked up the goal of reusing spacecraft and fielded a wide range of questions, despite a NASA spokeswoman’s entreaties to reporters to focus on the day’s mission.
The billionaire said he only recently came to believe that a large rocket such as SpaceX’s futuristic Starship can become “fully and rapidly reusable.” Figuring out how to do that is a thorny problem that will be the key to making humans a multiplanetary species, he said.
Starship, SpaceX’s newest and biggest rocket, could be ready for human flights in two years, he said, while acknowledging that his track record for timing often has been overly optimistic. Starship prototypes suffered four mishaps in the first four test flights in South Texas. A fifth attempt could occur as soon as this month.
“Obviously, we need to not be making craters” with the Starship tests, Musk said.
SpaceX’s lunar lander for NASA could be ready for flight in 2024, he added.
On April 28, SpaceX is scheduled to bring back the four crew members from the November flight, with a splashdown off the Florida coast. The company’s next mission to the station is tentatively set for October.
NASA last year agreed to allow its space station crew rotations to be conducted on previously flown equipment. The agency studied the entire Falcon 9 fleet, including more than “400 certification products,” and conducted its own analysis on the engines, thermal-protection elements and other parts of the Falcon-Dragon system, said Steve Stich, director of NASA’s commercial crew program.
Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, applauded the agency’s close partnership with SpaceX in recent years. Last week, the agency selected SpaceX to land astronauts on the moon as part of the Artemis program.
The flight on Friday is “the third launch in less than a year after almost a 10-year gap in launching astronauts on U.S. rockets from U.S. soil,” he said after the launch.
SpaceX has flown another one of its Falcon 9 rockets nine times without people, and its Dragon capsule is certified for as many as five flights. The Hawthorne, California-based company is keen to learn the useful life of a Falcon 9, although crewed launches won’t be part of those tests.
Musk said the rocket’s first stage has no “obvious limit” on how many times it can fly and that the company will soon use one on a 10th flight to deploy its Starlink satellite constellation.
SpaceX will use the booster stage “until we see some kind of failure with the Starlink missions,” he said. NASA flights won’t be among those flown on Falcon 9 “life leaders.”
The NASA Crew-2 mission is commanded by Shane Kimbrough, 53, a retired U.S. Army colonel, helicopter pilot and father of three, who is taking his third trip to space. The crew is expected to return to Earth in late October.
Three other astronauts are on board:
- Pilot Megan McArthur, 49, an oceanographer selected by NASA as an astronaut in 2000. She flew on the final mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope in May 2009. McArthur is married to Bob Behnken, who flew on the same Dragon vehicle during SpaceX’s last test flight for NASA to the space station. The couple has a son.
- Mission specialist Akihiko Hoshide, 52, an astronaut from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, who has flown to space twice, in 2008 and 2012.
- Thomas Pesquet, a former Air France pilot who joined the European Space Agency as an astronaut in 2009. Pesquet, a 43-year-old native of Rouen, France, spent six months aboard the space station from November 2016 to June 2017.
The Commercial Crew Program is a keystone of NASA’s effort to contract with private companies where possible for astronaut and cargo transport, along with other services.
In 2014, NASA awarded upstart SpaceX and Boeing a combined $6.8 billion in contracts to revive the ability of the U.S. to fly to the orbiting lab without buying seats on Russian Soyuz capsules. A second test flight of Boeing’s Starliner vehicle, without a crew, is set for later this year after a botched mission in December 2019.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets, and NASA has been a key partner and customer. A cargo version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule makes regular runs to the space station.
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