CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – SpaceX launched four astronauts to NASA’s International Space Station on Wednesday, less than two days after completing a multimillionaire chartered flight.
It is the first NASA crew to be composed equally of men and women, including the first black woman to undertake a long-haul space flight, Jessica Watkins.
“I think this is one of the most versatile crews we’ve had in a really very long time,” said Kathy Luders, chief of NASA’s Space Operations Mission.
The astronauts were due to arrive at the space station on Wednesday evening, 16 hours after their pre-dawn liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center, which impressed onlookers.
“Everyone who saw it knew how beautiful it was,” Luders told reporters. After a quick flight similar to flying from New York to Singapore, the crew will move on to stay for five months.
SpaceX has now launched five NASA crews and two special flights in just under two years. Elon Musk’s company has had a particularly busy few weeks: It just finished taking three businessmen to and from the space station as NASA’s first special guests.
SpaceX and NASA officials stressed that they are taking one step at a time to ensure safety. They said the special mission that concluded on Monday did not encounter major problems, although high winds delayed the splashing of water by a week.
The SpaceX Launch Control program wished the astronauts good luck moments before the launch of the Falcon rocket with the capsule that its crew dubbed Freedom.
“Our sincere thanks to all of you who made this possible. Now, let the Falcon roar and shoot Freedom,” said NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, Commander. Minutes later, their recycled booster landed on an ocean platform and their capsule was safely orbiting the Earth. “It was a wonderful trip,” he said.
SpaceX capsules are fully automated – opening the gates of space to a wider clientele – and 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 into residence for long. Watkins, a geologist on NASA’s shortlist for a lunar landing mission in the coming years, sees her mission as “an important milestone, I think, for the agency and the state.”
She credits the family and supportive mentors—including Mae Jameson, the first black woman in space in 1992—for “finally being able to live my dream.”
It was also another geologist who cheered for Watkins: Harrison Schmidt of Apollo 17, who walked on the moon in 1972. She invited the retired astronaut to launch with his wife. “We kind of consider ourselves Jessica’s team,” he said with a laugh.
“Those of us who rode the Saturn 5 into space were a little weary about the smaller rockets,” Schmidt said after SpaceX took off. “But with that, it was really something and a geologist was on board…hopefully put it in a good position to be part of one of the The crews of Artemis that go to the moon.”
Like Watkins, NASA astronaut and test pilot Bob Hines is making his first spaceflight. It’s the second visit for Dr Lindgren and the only ESA astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, a former fighter pilot in the Italian Air Force.
Cristoforetti turned 45 on Tuesday, “so she is really celebrating and she is very happy with a big smile in the capsule,” said ESA Director General Josef Schbacher. “She really is a role model and she does an absolutely amazing job of doing exactly that.”
The just-completed special flight was NASA’s first space tourism expedition after years of opposition. The space agency said the three people, who each paid $55 million to visit the space station, mingled while conducting experiments and educational outreach. They were accompanied by a former NASA astronaut working for Houston-based Axiom Space, which arranged the flight.
“The International Space Station is not a vacation place. It is not an amusement park. It is an international laboratory, and they fully understand and respect that purpose,” said Zep Scoville, NASA flight manager.
NASA also hired Boeing to transport astronauts after the shuttles were retired. The company will take another opportunity next month to bring an empty crew capsule to the space station, after software and other problems marred a 2019 test flight and prevented a return flight last summer.
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