May 6, 2021

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SpaceX rocket soars in pre-dawn launch of 4 astronauts

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The Falcon 9 rocket blazed across a black sky just before sunrise and NASA confirmed shortly after liftoff Friday that the astronauts had safely reached orbit.

After about a 23-hour ride, the Crew Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to dock at the ISS around 5:10 a.m. ET on Saturday.

“Watching a launch from Kennedy Space Center never gets old for me. I’ve watched many launches and watching a pre-dawn launch is especially exciting and just visually stunning,” NASA’s acting administrator, Steve Jurczyk,​​ said at a post-launch news conference Friday morning. “I could not be more proud of the team.”

The crew is composed of NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur as well as Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

“What an incredible launch, hopefully you guys got to watch it this morning, right as the sun was rising we took off,” Kimbrough said from the Crew Dragon “Endeavor” capsule shortly after the astronauts reached orbit.

“We chased the sun pretty quickly and caught up just a few minutes after we took off. That was really special to see the sunlight coming in shortly after liftoff,” the mission’s commander added.

McArther said, “The ascent was incredible, the ride was really smooth. We couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Friday’s launch marked only the third time that Elon Musk’s private space-faring firm has flown astronauts.

It also ushered in a new era of reusability in human space exploration, as the mission uses the same Falcon 9 rocket that sent four astronauts to the ISS last November and the same Crew Dragon spacecraft that sent and returned two astronauts during the first crewed SpaceX flight last May.

“I met with the crew last night, they are ready to go,” Jurczyk​​ said at a pre-launch news conference from the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday. “I asked them what they look forward to most in the mission, and they said launching and getting up on station and getting to work.”

This marks the “third launch in less than a year” for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, he said.

The launch was originally scheduled for early Thursday morning but was moved to Friday due to downrange inclement weather. Liftoff occurred at 5:49 a.m. ET on Friday from the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Prior to liftoff, the U.S. Space Force 45th Weather Squadron had forecast a 95% chance of favorable weather conditions in the area for a launch.

NASA’s live coverage of the launch kicked off at 1:30 a.m. ET on its website and social media accounts.

Jurczyk said Wednesday that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory team received a call earlier this week from U.S. President Joe Biden, who congratulated the researchers on their success in conducting the first controlled flight on another planet.

“He told the team that his grandson asked him when was he going to travel to Mars,” Jurczyk said. “So that’s something really important that we do.”

“We enable commercial activities in space, we demonstrate leadership, and we inspire the next generation,” he said.

Meet the crew

The diverse crew is set to stay on the space station for a six-month science mission.

McArthur, the mission’s pilot, is married to fellow astronaut Bob Behnken, who was part of the historic first NASA-SpaceX mission last May. In a previous interview, Behnken said this time it’s “her turn to focus on getting her mission accomplished” and his turn to watch their young son.

Kimbrough, 53, is an Army veteran and the mission’s commander. The father of three has logged some 189 days in space and first joined NASA as a flight simulation engineer in 2000.

Hoshide, 52, is a native of Tokyo and will serve as a mission specialist for Crew-2. He went on his first spaceflight in 2008, and in 2012 spent 124 days on the ISS.

Pesquet, 43, is the first ESA astronaut to join a NASA-SpaceX mission. He has also logged a chunk of time aboard the ISS, spending six months on the station in 2016. The French astronaut will serve as a mission specialist.

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