SpaceX just launched its fourth astronaut mission for NASA as part of the agency’s commercial crew program.
A slightly sooty Falcon 9 rocket topped with a Crew Dragon capsule took to the skies above NASA’s Kennedy Space Center here on Wednesday (Nov. 10) at 9:03 p.m. EST (0200 Nov. 11 GMT), lighting up the night sky as it lifted off from the agency’s historic Pad 39A.
The launch kicked off SpaceX’s Crew-3 mission, which will carry four astronauts — NASA’s Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, along with the European Space Agency’s Matthias Maurer — on a 22-hour flight to the International Space Station (ISS).
“Thanks for the great ride; it was better than we imagined,” Chari, commander of the Crew-3 mission, told NASA’s mission control after the crew arrived safely in orbit.
Live updates: SpaceX’s Crew-3 astronaut mission for NASA
Following a series of weather-related delays, the Crew-3 launch countdown proceeded smoothly, with the closeout crews completing critical leak and communications checks ahead of schedule. The crew seemed relaxed and ready for the action as the minutes ticked away.
“What a beautiful launch,” NASA associate administrator Bob Cabana said during the live broadcast. “It was another great experience seeing those four take off into space tonight.”
Once the Falcon 9’s first stage engines ignited, the rocket put on a breathtaking show as the glow from the engines lit up the night sky.
“Sometimes when you try to fly on Halloween, you get a trick instead of a treat,” Chari radioed SpaceX flight controllers just before liftoff. “We’re honored to fly Endurance on Veterans Day and we’re proud to represent the SpaceX and NASA teams as we live and work on the ISS for the next six months.”
The Crew-3 launch marked the 25th launch of the year here in Florida and the 24th so far this year for SpaceX. While the rocket was one of SpaceX’s veteran flyers, launching on its second mission, the Dragon Crew capsule was brand new.
Dubbed Dragon Endurance by its Crew, the capsule is carrying Crew-3 on a six-month mission aboard the ISS. The picture-perfect launch occurred just 12 days after it was originally scheduled to blast off. Chari, Marshburn, Barron and Maurer arrived in Florida on Oct. 26, days before their planned Halloween launch.
Poor weather along the rocket’s flight path pushed back the launch a few days. It was delayed further by continued bad weather and a minor medical issue with one of the astronauts. (NASA did not elaborate on the issue due to privacy reasons for the astronaut.)
To that end, the agency decided it was best to bring the previous group of astronauts — NASA’s Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, ESA’s Thomas Pesquet and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Akihiko Hoshide — home before launching their replacements.
Those astronauts strapped into their own Dragon and departed the space station on Monday afternoon, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico hours later. Already back in Houston and with their families, the crew left NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei in charge of acquainting the Crew-3 crew members with the ISS.
Marshburn, who is the only veteran space flyer on the Crew-3 mission, told Space.com prior to launch that he was really looking forward to experiencing spaceflight with his three crewmates who have never been to space. In fact, Barron has never seen a rocket launch before. Her own flight was her first-ever launch and her first time flying in space.
SpaceX ramping up
As part of NASA’s first human spaceflight program, Project Mercury, the agency launched a total of six people into space in the early years of the space age. With today’s liftoff, SpaceX has now put 18 people into orbit in less than two years, including four private citizens who flew on a three-day trip around the Earth as part of the Inspiration4 mission.
Four of those five flights have been part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which contracted private companies to build spacecraft capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS. The program was designed to help foster a commercial economy in low Earth orbit, where NASA is a customer instead of the provider. This way, the agency could hire a space taxi service (like the Crew Dragon) to run back and forth between Earth and ISS, freeing the agency up to focus on more deep-space exploration projects like Artemis. (Artemis is NASA’s newest lunar exploration program which focuses on returning humans to the moon.)
NASA relied on its fleet of space shuttles to not only transport astronauts to space, but also to help build the International Space Station, which has been continuously occupied for more than 20 years now. But the shuttle’s days were limited. Just before its retirement, NASA decided that it wanted to hand over the reins of low Earth orbit to private industry and entrusted two companies — SpaceX and Boeing — to ferry agency astronauts to and from space. SpaceX built Crew Dragon, an advanced variant of its robotic Dragon cargo capsule, and Boeing is developing a capsule called CST-100 Starliner.
Boeing and NASA spent 18 months pouring over the data and making adjustments to both the software and the spacecraft. In August the company tried to launch Starliner on a second uncrewed test, but a combination of bad weather and an anomaly within the capsule’s propulsion system kept it grounded.
Valves inside the spacecraft that control its propellant were stuck closed, and the team tried to troubleshoot and were able to unstick the majority of the valves; however, crews were unable to unstick the remaining four valves and had to transport the Starliner back into the Boeing facilities here at the Cape. Currently, the launch is on hold indefinitely as the teams work to resolve the issue.