SpaceX launched the Falcon 9 rocket carrying four astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday, after a delay of nearly two weeks.
Three astronauts of the Crew-3 mission were from NASA, including flight commander Raja Chari, 44, mission pilot Tom Marshburn, 61, and mission specialist Kayla Barron, 34. The fourth member Mathias Maurer, 51, is a German national, from the European Space Agency (ESA).
The launch vehicle consisted of a Crew Dragon capsule perched atop a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket, built by SpaceX.
The launch went on smoothly, with crew members seated calmly with helmets and their white-and-black flight suits. The sky was lit up with a reddish flame, live footage on NASA's website showed.
In 10 minutes, the rocket's upper stage (called "the Dragon") had delivered the crew capsule into orbit. The lower stage detached itself from the rest of the spacecraft and returned to earth, landing on a platform on a drone vessel in the Atlantic Ocean.
A launch engineer said to the crew, "Welcome to orbit. Hope you enjoyed the ride. Dragon will take you from here. Safe travels," via radio.
Research into future exploration
NASA Chief Bill Nelson tweeted right after the take off: "Godspeed, Crew-3 — I can’t wait to see all that you accomplish!"
The crew will arrive and dock with the space station 250 miles (400 kilometers) above the Earth about 22 hours after launching. The spaceship, called Endurance, will dock with the ISS at 7:10 pm Thursday (0010 GMT on Friday). The crew will conduct research to help inform future deep space exploration.
Some of the highlights of the mission include an experiment to grow plants in space without soil or other growth media, and another to build optical fibers in microgravity, which prior research has suggested will be superior in quality to those made on Earth.
The crew will be present for six months, and will conduct spacewalks to complete an upgrade of the station's solar panels. They will be present for two tourism missions: one including Japanese visitors aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft by the end of the year, and the Space-X Axiom crew, set for launch in February 2022.
Commander Chari will lead the expedition on his first trip to space. Barron, who was selected along with Chari for the NASA astronaut corps in 2017, used to serve as a submarine warfare officer for the Navy.
It is the first space trip for Maurer as well, who is a materials science engineer. He will become the twelfth German in the cosmos. Marshburn, a medical doctor, is the only crew member who has been in space before, having flown aboard a Space Shuttle in 2009 and a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in a mission from 2012-13.
Matthias Maurer became the 600th space traveler in 60 years, according to NASA.
String of delays
The launch took place from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida's Cape Canaveral at 9:03 p.m. local time (0203 UTC/GMT).
The launch was initially scheduled for October 31 but was delayed due to a string of bad weather conditions. An unspecified medical issue of a crew member had caused another delay, which has since been resolved. The medical complication was not COVID-related, confirmed NASA.
The Crew-2 mission splashed back into the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday after 199 days in orbit. Crew-3 will be welcomed by the three current occupants — cosmonauts from Russia and Belarus and a US astronaut who shared a Soyuz flight to the orbiting platform earlier this year.
NASA has a public-private partnership with Elon Musk's SpaceX, and this will be the fourth crew to be launched into space aboard a SpaceX vehicle in 17 months.
tg/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters)