A Falcon 9 missile with a previously flown first stage that lit the sky before dawn came to life and shot off on the east coast early Friday. She put a refurbished SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule into orbit the International Space Station with four astronauts on a day trip.
The rocket’s nine engines, which were running 24 hours late due to impending offshore weather, fired at 5:49 a.m.CET, throttled to a total of 1.7 million pounds of thrust, and gently pushed the sleek booster off the historic Pad 39A on the Kennedy away space center.
Commander Shane Kimbrough, co-pilot Megan McArthur, French Thomas Pesquet and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, all space veterans who made their first flights aboard a SpaceX capsule, monitored the automated ascent on large touchscreen displays.
The launch provided a spectacular pre-dawn show for residents and tourists as the Falcon 9 soared into the sky and destroyed the morning silence along Florida’s “Space Coast” with a thundering baffle as the booster flew northeast across the Atlantic from a sky-lit beam of flame.
Company founder and chief designer Elon Musk watched from the SpaceX launch control room.
“It’s very intense,” he said when he saw his third Falcon 9 take off with astronauts on board. “I suppose it’ll be a little easier, but it’s still extremely intense. I usually can’t sleep the night before the start, and so did the night before this one.
“But luckily we have a great team. I’m really very proud of the incredible work the team has done in collaboration with NASA. … It’s hard to believe we’re doing this here, quite frankly. it feels like a dream. “
The Falcon 9’s ascent from the lower atmosphere went smoothly and two and a half minutes after take off, the first stage engines were turned off, the booster dropped, and the single engine powering the second stage took over and continued its ascent into orbit.
The first leg turned around and landed on an offshore drone ship. Nine and a half minutes after takeoff, she landed on the company’s 80th successful stage recovery, the 58th at sea.
Two and a half minutes later, the Dragon crew was released from the second stage to fly alone. Docking with the space station is expected on Saturday at 5:10 a.m.
“Hello Earth! It’s great to be back in space,” said McArthur, who completed her second space flight, on a video downlink from orbit. “The climb was amazing, the ride went smoothly, we couldn’t have asked for anything better. It might have honked and giggled a little while it was all going. We hope you enjoyed the show.”
The astronauts were surprised late in the day as they prepared for bed to end a busy first day in orbit. SpaceX capsule communicator Sarah Gilles called to warn the crew that Space Command radars are tracking a possible close encounter or connection between the Crew Dragon and an unidentified piece of space debris. As a precaution, she asked the astronauts to put their pressure suits back on.
“For the sake of awareness, we have identified a possible later connection with a fairly small error distance to Dragon,” she radioed at 1:24 pm. “As such, we need you to immediately proceed with donning the suit and securing yourself in the seats. We will be careful to get you into a better configuration.”
The astronauts immediately put their pressure suits back on, buckled into their seats, and closed their helmet visors. But as it turned out, the rubble was farther away than originally predicted and passed without incident.
The launch was only the third piloted flight from US soil into orbit since the shuttle’s retirement in 2011 and the second operational mission to Dragon Dragon, a flight known simply as “Crew-2” since NASA of their sole reliance on the shuttle deviates on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
In a first for NASA’s commercial crew program, the Crew 2 astronauts rode into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket with a previously flown first stage strapped to a Crew Dragon and making its second flight.
The capsule first flew last May and put Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken – McArthur’s husband – into orbit in the program’s first and only piloted test flight. The second piloted flight, which took off on November 15, brought four astronauts to the space station for SpaceX’s first operational Crew Dragon mission.
After the first flight, the Crew 2 capsule was structurally improved to better withstand the forces of splashes in windy weather in rough seas, which eased strict landing weather restrictions somewhat. The spacecraft’s demolition system was improved and allowed escape on the pad in stronger winds. New parachutes were installed and a new heat shield attached.
At a post-flight briefing, Musk reiterated his long-standing goal for SpaceX rockets, saying “full and rapid reusability” is key to reducing the cost of space travel.
“What is really important to revolutionizing space is a quickly reusable missile,” he said. “This is exactly what needs to be done. If possible, the cost of access to orbit and beyond could potentially be reduced by a factor of 100 or more.”
Musk launched SpaceX two decades ago and “only recently have I felt that full and rapid reusability can be achieved. I wasn’t sure for a long time, but now I’m sure.”
While the Falcon 9 is only partially reusable – the missile’s second stage has not been restored – the company’s planned Starship heavy-lift missile will be fully reusable and should be ready to fly within a few years.
“The future looks good,” he said. “I think we are at the beginning of a new era in space exploration.”
For their part, Crew 2 astronauts said they felt comfortable flying aboard a “used” crew ship for the first time since the end of the shuttle program. Perhaps not surprising as SpaceX has now flown back 60 first stage boosters, one of which has nine flights on its account. Two others have flown eight times.
McArthur flew aboard a space shuttle to operate the Hubble Space Telescope during their previous trip into orbit. When she found out that she was going to strap herself into the same Crew Dragon who brought her husband to and from the space station last year, she said, “I was thrilled and surprised. It’s a nice twist in the whole story.”
Regarding her young son and the question of risk, McArthur said, “It is always difficult to know exactly what a child is taking in (but) their understanding of it has evolved over time.”
“He recently saw his father take off and then stay on the International Space Station for two months. And now it’s mom’s turn. … If he talks about it, he talks about it well, he’ll go next. But…” he’s going to (the home planet of the Transformers) Cybertron. So he has big goals too! “
With a beautiful start in the background, the Crew Dragon astronauts monitor the initial stages of the spacecraft’s automated rendezvous with the space station before they go to “bed”. Waking up late Friday should prepare for docking with the space station early Saturday.
You will be aboard space station commander Shannon Walker and fellow Crew 1 astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, as well as Soyuz MS-18 / 64S commander Oleg Novitskiy, Pyotr Dubrow and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei welcomed.
The Soyuz crew arrived on April 9 and docked at the station three hours after take-off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. They replaced Soyuz MS-17 / 63S commander Sergey Ryzhikov, Sergey Kud-Sverchkov and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, who undocked on April 17 and returned to Earth to complete a 185-day stay in space.
The arrival of the Crew 2 astronauts will temporarily increase the laboratory’s crew from seven to eleven. After a four-day handover, Hopkins, Glover, Walker and Noguchi will undock in their own Crew Dragon and return to Earth and splash into the Gulf of Mexico south of Tallahassee, Florida around 12:40 p.m. Wednesday to complete a 164-day mission .
Before the Soyuz crew left, Ryzhikov handed over command of the space station to Walker. The day before their departure, Walker plans to hand over the complex to Hoshide, who will take command during the Tokyo Olympics, provided COVID concerns don’t cause further delay.
“If I’m up there for the Olympics it would be great. It would be great to see it and cheer on all the teams from different countries from the space station, especially since it’s the Olympics in Tokyo,” he said. “We’re slipping, they’re slipping, hopefully we’ll straighten out. But either way, it’s fine with me.”
All seven crew members are facing a particularly busy six months in space. Several US and Russian spacewalks are planned. Four cargo ships are loaded with scientific equipment, crew supplies, spares, and new roll-out solar array ceilings to increase the laboratory’s performance.
It will take four spacewalks planned by NASA to install two sets of IROSA solar ceilings, and two Russian EVAs are planned to provide connections between the station and a new Russian laboratory module due to be launched on a high-powered proton rocket in mid-July.
To make room for the new laboratory compartment, the cosmonaut crew plans to dispose of the station’s Pirs docking and airlock compartment and to bring it back into the atmosphere with an attached Progress supply ship. After the laboratory module was docked in place of Pirs, Novitskiy, Dubrov and Vande Hei buckle up their Soyuz and fly it to dock at a port of the newly arrived laboratory.
The Crew 2 astronauts and Soyuz MS-18 / 64S crew will return to Earth in late September and mid-October, respectively.