After a one-day delay due to weather conditions in Florida, Hawthorne-based SpaceX successfully launched four astronauts into space Sunday as it continues to reestablish the United States’ manned spaceflight program.
The Crew-1 mission launched at 4:27 p.m. California time, from Cape Canaveral in Florida, headed to the International Space Station. Minutes later, the Crew Dragon capsule separated from the rocket, which is intended to be available for future flights.
President-elect Joe Biden tweeted in response, saying, “Congratulations to NASA and SpaceX on today’s launch. It’s a testament to the power of science and what we can accomplish by harnessing our innovation, ingenuity, and determination. I join all Americans and the people of Japan in wishing the astronauts Godspeed on their journey.”
Outgoing President Donald Trump also went to Twitter, saying, “A great launch! @NASA was a closed up disaster when we took over. Now it is again the ‘hottest’, most advanced, space center in the world, by far!”
On Friday, the launch was re-scheduled for 4:27 p.m. California time Sunday. In a Twitter post, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the delay was prompted by “onshore winds and recovery operations.”
The 45th Space Wing at Cape Canaveral said earlier there was a 70% chance of favorable weather conditions for the Saturday launch. SpaceX, however, had additional weather considerations due to its plans to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that will propel the astronauts into space. In other words, after launching the rocket and detaching the Crew Dragon capsule, SpaceX will navigate the rocket back to Earth, landing it on a barge — dubbed “Just Read the Instructions” — in the Atlantic Ocean for cost-cutting reuse in future missions.
The company, therefore, must also factor weather conditions into the rocket’s return flight.
Bridenstine noted in his Twitter post that the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket in this weekend’s mission is also scheduled to be used in SpaceX’s next astronaut launch, the so-far-undated Crew-2 mission.
Sunday’s Crew-1 mission was originally set for Halloween, but had to be delayed so SpaceX could make needed upgrades to the Falcon 9 rocket being used for the launch.
In May, SpaceX propelled astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the space station in a Crew Dragon capsule named “Endeavour,” the first manned mission to launch from U.S. soil since the space shuttle program was retired in 2011.
While successful and hailed as a historic rejuvenation of U.S. spaceflight, that mission was technically just a demonstration flight, showing off the capabilities of the Crew Dragon. An earlier flight of a Crew Dragon capsule was unmanned, but it also successfully reached the space station with a belly full of cargo.
Sunday’s launch is thus considered the first fully operational mission for a Crew Dragon. The capsule being used in the mission, named “Resilience,” is built to accommodate four astronauts instead of the two who flew in the May launch.
The crew includes Mike Hopkins, the mission commander, pilot Victor Glover and mission specialists Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi. Hopkins, Glover and Walker are all NASA astronauts. Noguchi is with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and called the mission a “new era” of “international cooperation.”
Hopkins said the crew has been traveling to SpaceX facilities for training and testing of the Dragon capsule. He said he has thoroughly enjoyed the training process at NASA.
“My kids, my wife have said, `You don’t go to work anymore do you? It’s like you go and just play all day,”’ he said. “And that’s what it feels like when you come here … and get to train. It’s much more serious than that. It has real consequences, but at the same time, you know, I just absolutely love it.”
Walker said she was thrilled to be part of continuing human operations in space.
“I think it is just tremendously exciting and fascinating to know that kids are growing up today that have always had people living in space, and always had the countries working together for science and engineering objectives,” she said.
The crew will take part in a host of microgravity experiments while aboard the International Space Station. The Dragon capsule is carrying a variety of scientific hardware and materials for experiments, including a food physiology study to examine the effect of diet on the immune system during space travel and a student-designed “Genes in Space” experiment of how spaceflight affects brain function.
While on the station, the crew will also continue an experiment of growing radishes in space, helping to further understanding of how changes in gravity and atmosphere affect plant growth — considered key to future extended human travel to the moon and Mars.
The Crew-1 mission is the first of three planned Crew Dragon flights in 2020 and 2021.
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