KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, UNITED STATES (AFP) – SpaceX launched its third crew to the International Space Station (ISS) an hour before sunrise yesterday, recycling a rocket and spacecraft for the first time.
The Crew-2 mission, the first involving a European, blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5.49am (0949 GMT).
“Endeavour launches once again – four astronauts from three countries on Crew-2, now making their way to the one and only ISS,” announcer Gary Jordan said to loud cheers and applause.
The Crew Dragon entered orbit a few minutes later and is racing to catch up with the ISS in around 23 and a half hours.
Earlier, astronauts Thomas Pesquet of France, Americans Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur and Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide strode out in their suits to say goodbye to their families.
They then boarded three white Teslas for the launchpad, a new tradition established by SpaceX, whose owner Elon Musk also made an appearance. The cars’ license plates read “recycle”, “reuse”, and “reduce”, in a nod to the fact that both the Falcon 9 booster and Crew Dragon capsule were deployed on previous missions.
Flying on reused vehicles has been a key cost-saving goal of NASA’s partnerships with private industry.
The day before, Pesquet tweeted a photo of the space quartet lounging on the beach before their voyage.
“Our friends on the @Space_Station are expecting us to show up and we don’t want to be late. They even installed my bedroom recently and literally made my bed. Such nice hosts!” he added.
The extra “bed” is necessary to accommodate an unusually large number of people aboard the ISS: 11 in total, as the Crew-2 team overlaps for a few days with Crew-1 astronauts, in addition to three Russian cosmonauts.
It is the third time SpaceX will send humans to the ISS as part of its multibillion dollar contract with NASA under the Commercial Crew Programme.
The first mission launched last May and ended nine years of American reliance on Russian rockets for rides to the ISS following the end of the Space Shuttle programme.
“In terms of getting the operations ready, it’s always easier the third time you do it,” Daniel Forrestel, a NASA launch integration manager, told AFP.
“I would never ever want to describe spaceflight as ‘routine’, but ‘more familiar’ is a good way to put it,” he added.
Ahead of the launch, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Andreas Mogensen of Denmark told AFP the mission was also a major step forward for Europe, which has dubbed it ‘Alpha’ after its own naming convention.
“On the one hand, it means a lot of course to have an astronaut going to the ISS – but at the same time it’s also the next mission in a long line of missions.”
Germany’s Matthias Maurer will be the next European on a SpaceX mission this fall, followed by Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti next spring.
ESA will also be a key partner to the United States in the Artemis programme to return to the Moon, providing the power and propulsion component for the Orion spacecraft, and critical elements of a planned lunar orbital station called Gateway.
Mogensen predicted that in the hours leading up to the launch, Pesquet, who is a close friend of his, would be feeling a “sense of relief” to finally start the mission after years of planning.
“You’re very focussed on what’s going to happen, on your tasks at hand,” he said.