A Falcon 9 rocket with a previously flown first stage that lit the sky before dawn came to life and shot off on the east coast early Friday to orbit a refurbished SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule with four astronauts on a day trip bring the international space station.
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.
Two and a half minutes after liftoff, the first stage engines shut off, the booster dropped, and the single Merlin vacuum rating engine that powers 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 and set off for the space station. Docking is expected on Saturday at 5:10 a.m.
The launch was only the third piloted flight from US soil into orbit since the shuttle retired in 2011 and the second operational Crew Dragon mission, a flight known simply as “Crew-2” as NASA deviating from their sole reliance on the shuttle on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
And 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, launched on November 15, brought four astronauts to the space station for SpaceX’s first operational Crew Dragon mission.
SpaceX initially planned to use all new rockets and capsules for commercial astronaut flights. Last year, the company asked NASA to consider flying previously flown vehicles, and after an in-depth review, the agency agreed.
“We’ve been working on reuse (problems) for the last year,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program. “This is the vehicle Bob and Doug flew in and we will have our first reused booster. We went through these certification efforts … and we are in really good shape with reusing it.”
During the renovation, structural improvements were made to the capsule to better withstand the forces of splashes in windy weather in rough seas, somewhat easing strict landing weather restrictions. 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.
All four crew members stated that they were comfortable flying aboard a “used” spacecraft for the first time since the end of the shuttle program. No wonder, because SpaceX had flown 59 first stage boosters again on Friday, one of which has nine flights on its account. Two others have flown eight times.
McArthur is a seasoned space shuttle astronaut who serviced the Hubble Space Telescope. 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. Now it’s mom’s turn and I’ll be gone for six months. So it was really a build-up approach. And when he did.” talks about it, he talks well, he will go next. But he will go to Cybertron (the home planet of the Transformers). So he has big goals too! “
Behnken and the couple’s son, Theo, attended the launch on Friday and said goodbye to McArthur before the crew were driven to the launch pad in white Tesla SUVs.
With a picture-perfect start, the Crew Dragon astronauts planned to oversee the initial stages of the spacecraft’s automated rendezvous with the space station, calling it a 2pm day. 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 briefly increase the laboratory’s crew from seven to eleven. However, after a four-day handover, Hopkins, Glover, Walker and Noguchi will undock and return to Earth with their own crew Dragon and splash in the Earth’s Gulf of Mexico south of Tallahassee, Florida around 12:40 p.m. Wednesday for a 164-day mission complete.
Before the Soyuz crew left, Ryzhikov handed over command of the space station to Walker. The day before their departure, Walker plans to hand the complex over to Hoshide.
The Japanese astronaut was originally scheduled to take off aboard a Russian Soyuz last year when the Tokyo Olympics were slated for 2020. However, Hoshide was pushed by the Soyuz crew when NASA decided to launch astronaut Chris Cassidy in his place to avoid a possible loophole in the U.S. station crews.
As it turns out, the Olympics have been postponed until this summer due to the COVID pandemic, and Hoshide’s stint on the Crew 2 mission is ensuring a Japanese commander is in orbit at the start of the Games, provided COVID concerns are resolved no 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.”
The Crew 1 capsule landing is only the second time returning astronauts have returned to an ocean splash since NASA’s Apollo-Soyuz test project crew came home in 1975.
As with SpaceX’s first Demo 2 test flight last August, the company will have a recovery ship ready to secure the spaceship and help the crew disembark, while the astronauts adjust to the unfamiliar tug of war again after almost six months of weightlessness . After initial medical examinations, they will be flown ashore in a helicopter and handed over to NASA.
When the Demo 2 crew splashed south of Pensacola on August 2nd, the NASA and SpaceX recovery teams were surprised by the numerous pleasure boaters enjoying a sunny day in the Gulf and quickly surrounding the capsule, taking cellphone photos, waving flags, and getting in some cases beer cans.
This time around, the Coast Guard is scheduled to patrol a 10 nautical mile wide safety zone to prevent disruption and keep the public away from possible exposure to toxic propellants.
With the Crew 1 splashdown, NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, replaced the entire seven-person crew of the space station in just three weeks, replacing two Russians, four Americans and a Japanese aviator with two more cosmonauts, three NASA, one astronaut another Japanese aviator and an astronaut from the European Space Agency. All are veterans except Dubrov, who is making his first flight.
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, spare parts, and new roll-out solar array ceilings, which are necessary to improve the performance of the laboratory.
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 throw the station’s Pirs docking and airlock compartment with an attached Progress supply ship overboard to drive it back into the atmosphere. 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.