SpaceX launched its third team of astronauts to the International Space Station reusing a Crew Dragon space capsule for the first time to transport humans early Friday morning.
Crew-2 is the most recent mission under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and it will bring four more astronauts to the orbital space station.
At 5:49 a.m. ET, a used Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying Endeavour, the same Crew Dragon capsule that launched SpaceX’s inaugural astronaut flight nearly a year ago.
The Endeavour capsule transported four astronauts from three different countries on this mission, making it SpaceX’s most diverse NASA-managed crew to date.
Minutes before liftoff, NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, the mission’s spacecraft commander, told SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California, “Off the Earth, for the Earth, Endeavour is ready to go.”
Mission specialists Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Thomas Pesquet, a French aerospace engineer from the European Space Agency, accompanied Kimbrough and fellow NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, who served as the pilot (ESA).
The crew will be in transit for nearly 24 hours as Endeavour autonomously lifts its orbit toward the International Space Station in preparation for a 5:10 a.m. ET docking, April 24th.
Sunlight shone through the windows of Crew Dragon Endeavour as it separated from its Falcon 9 second stage booster about 12 minutes after liftoff, drawing cheers and cheering from engineers in SpaceX’s mission control.
Mission control told the Endeavour crew, “Thanks for flying our first flight-proven, crewed Falcon 9,” confirming a safe arrival in orbit.
Kimbrough, seen on live camera feeds from inside Crew Dragon, responded from Endeavour, “We’re great, glad to be back in space for all of us, and we’ll send our regards to Crew-1 when we get there.”
When the astronauts entered orbit, a stuffed penguin toy that served as a microgravity symbol emerged from underneath their seats. The capsule was separated shortly after the Falcon 9’s first stage booster landed on SpaceX’s “Of Course I Still Love You” drone-ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
“We had an incredible launch,” Kimbrough said from Crew Dragon, as the spacecraft orbited Earth over South Africa. “That was pretty special to see the sunlight coming in shortly after liftoff.” McArthur stated that “the ride was really smooth … We couldn’t have asked for anything better. There may have been some hootin’ and gigglin’ up here” during ascent, she added.
As Crew Dragon was placed in orbit, Kimbrough said the crew rushed to the windows to see the Falcon 9 second stage “pretty much flying in formation with us” after it separated.
Kimbrough, McArthur, Hoshide, and Pesquet will spend six months in space, joining seven other astronauts already on board the space station, an orbital research laboratory that travels at more than 17,000 miles per hour in a 250-mile-high orbit.
Four other astronauts from SpaceX’s Crew-1 flight, which launched to the ISS on November 15th, 2020, will board a separate Crew Dragon capsule and return to Earth on April 28th, a few days after this crew’s arrival.
Crew-2 is SpaceX’s third astronaut mission as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a public-private partnership aimed at resurrecting the agency’s human spaceflight capabilities after a nearly decade-long reliance on Russian rockets.
It’s the second of six operating missions that SpaceX has been paid to fly as part of the program, which awarded the company $2.6 billion in 2014 to build and fly Crew Dragon. SpaceX’s first crewed launch, which carried Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley in May 2020, was considered a test flight.
SpaceX has previously launched and reused hundreds of Falcon 9 rockets and uncrewed Dragon capsules, and the Crew-2 mission marked another reusability achievement for the company.
This was the first mission to reuse a Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule for human flight, a capability NASA accepted last year as a modification to SpaceX’s contract. This saves SpaceX and NASA time and resources that would otherwise be spent developing new spacecraft for each flight.
After splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico last year with Hurley and Behnken inside, the Endeavour capsule was given a light refurbishment at SpaceX’s facilities in Cape Canaveral, dubbed “Dragonland.” Most of the capsule’s hardware was retained, but new thermal insulation, parachutes, and internal fuel valves were installed.
Crew-2’s stay onboard the ISS will be accompanied by two Russian cosmonauts and NASA’s Mark Vande Hei, who all launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket on April 9th, resulting in a seven-person crew in space for the next few months.
The crew will perform a variety of microgravity science experiments during their stay. The research activities of the Crew-2 astronauts will be focused on a cassette-sized unit containing human cells, which will be used to investigate how those cells respond to different drugs and health conditions in microgravity.
Other science experiments, such as a few projects tracking how plants grow and act in space, would benefit from the increased crew size. Annmarie Eldering, a project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3, a system astronauts would use to calculate carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, said, “It’s like a party up there.”
“When you get all those measurements from space in the same time, same place, it’s really powerful for science,” Eldering said in a live NASA broadcast Friday morning.