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SpaceX launches first full crew to the International Space Station

Occasion marks what NASA plans to be regular liftoffs from Kennedy Space Center.

NASA astronauts, from left, Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Michael Hopkins and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi head to the launchpad Sunday for the SpaceX Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (John Raoux/AP)

SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station on Sunday on the first full-fledged taxi flight for NASA by a private company.

The Falcon rocket thundered into the night from Kennedy Space Center with three Americans and one Japanese, the second crew to be launched by SpaceX. The Dragon capsule on top — named Resilience by its crew in light of this year’s many challenges, most notably covid-19 — reached orbit nine minutes later. It is due to reach the space station late Monday and remain there until spring.

NASA enters a new era of human space flight

“By working together through these difficult times, you’ve inspired the nation, the world, and in no small part the name of this incredible vehicle, Resilience,” Commander Mike Hopkins said right before liftoff.

Once reaching orbit, he radioed: “That was one heck of a ride.”

Sidelined by the coronavirus himself, SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk was forced to monitor the action from afar. He tweeted that he “most likely” had a moderate case of covid-19. NASA policy at Kennedy Space Center requires anyone testing positive for coronavirus to quarantine and remain isolated.

Sunday’s launch follows by just a few months SpaceX’s two-pilot test flight. It kicks off what NASA hopes will be a long series of crew rotations between the United States and the space station, after years of delay. More people means more science research at the orbiting lab, according to officials.

Cheers and applause erupted at SpaceX Mission Control in Hawthorne, California, after the capsule reached orbit and the first-stage booster landed on a floating platform in the Atlantic. Musk tweeted a single red heart.

The flight to the space station — 27½ hours door to door — should be entirely automated, although the crew can take control if needed. SpaceX had to deal with pressure pump spikes once the capsule reached orbit, but resolved the issue.

The three-men, one-woman crew led by Hopkins, an Air Force colonel, named their capsule Resilience in a nod not only to the pandemic, but also racial injustice and contentious politics. It’s about as diverse as space crews come, including physicist Shannon Walker, Navy Commander Victor Glover, the first Black astronaut on a long-term space station mission, and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, who became the first person in almost 40 years to launch on three types of spacecraft.

NASA turned to private companies to haul cargo and crew to the space station, after the shuttle fleet retired in 2011. SpaceX qualified for both. With Kennedy back in astronaut-launching action, NASA can stop buying seats on Russian Soyuz rockets. The last one cost $90 million.

The commander of SpaceX’s first crew, Doug Hurley, noted it’s not just about saving money or easing the training burdens for crews.

“Bottom line: I think it’s just better for us to be flying from the United States if we can do that,” he told the Associated Press last week.

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