SpaceX launches 4 astronauts for NASA after private flight

A week after the new crew arrives, the three Americans and Germans they replace return to Earth in their own SpaceX capsule.

A week after the new crew arrives, the three Americans and Germans they replace return to Earth in their own SpaceX capsule.

SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA on Wednesday, less than two days after completing a flight chartered by millionaires.

It is the first NASA crew to be equally composed of men and women, including the first black woman to make a long-duration spaceflight, Jessica Watkins.

“This is one of the most diversified, I think, crews we’ve had in a very, very long time,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s chief of space operations.

The astronauts were due to arrive at the space station Wednesday evening, 16 hours after a pre-dawn launch from Kennedy Space Center that delighted onlookers.

“Everyone who saw it realized what a wonderful launch it was,” Lueders told reporters. After an express flight similar to a trip from New York to Singapore, the crew moves in for a five-month stay.

SpaceX has now launched five crews for NASA and two private trips in just under two years. Elon Musk’s company has had a particularly busy few weeks: It just brought three businessmen to and from the space station as NASA’s first private guests.

A week after the new crew arrives, the three Americans and Germans they replace return to Earth in their own SpaceX capsule. Three Russians also live in the space station.

Both SpaceX and NASA officials stressed that they are taking it one step at a time to ensure safety. The private mission that concluded Monday experienced no major problems, they said, although high winds delayed the landing by a week.

SpaceX Launch Control wished the astronauts good luck and Godspeed moments before the Falcon rocket carrying the capsule, dubbed Freedom by the crew, took off.

“Our sincere thanks to everyone who made this possible. Now let Falcon roar and Freedom ring,” said NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, the commander. Minutes later, their recycled booster had landed on an ocean platform and their capsule was orbiting safely. “It was a great ride,” he said.

The SpaceX capsules are fully automated – opening the space gates to a wider customer base – and they are designed to accommodate a wider range of body sizes. At the same time, NASA and the European Space Agency are pushing for more female astronauts.

While two black women visited the space station during the shuttle era, neither of them moved for an extended period of time. Watkins, a geologist shortlisted by NASA for a moon landing mission in the coming years, sees her mission as “an important milestone, I think, for both the agency and the country.” She thanks supportive family and mentors — including Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space in 1992 — for “ultimately being able to live my dream.” Watkins also encouraged was another geologist: Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17, who walked on the moon in 1972. She invited the retired astronaut to the launch, along with his wife. “We consider ourselves the Jessica team,” he said with a chuckle.

“Those of us who drove the Saturn V into space are a little jaded about the smaller rockets,” Schmitt said after the SpaceX launch. “But still, it was really something and was a geologist on board … I hope it will serve her well because she is part of one of the Artemis crews going to the moon.” Like Watkins, NASA astronaut and test pilot Bob Hines makes his first space flight. It is the second visit for Lindgren, a doctor, and the European Space Agency’s only female astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, a former Italian Air Force fighter pilot.

Cristoforetti turned 45 on Tuesday, “so she’s really celebrating and is very happy with a big smile in the capsule,” said Josef Aschbacher, the director-general of the European Space Agency. “She really is a role model and she does a great job doing just that.” The just-completed private flight was NASA’s first dive into space tourism after years of opposition. The space agency said the three people who paid $55 million each to visit the space station mixed in while doing experiments and educational outreach. They were joined by a former NASA astronaut employed by Houston-based Axiom Space, which arranged the flight.

“The International Space Station is not a vacation spot. It’s not an amusement park. It’s an international lab and they absolutely understood and respected that goal,” said NASA Flight Director Zeb Scoville.

NASA also hired Boeing to transport astronauts after the shuttles were retired. The company will make another attempt to get an empty crew pod to the space station next month after software and other problems ruined a test flight in 2019 and prevented a repeat last summer.


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