CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) – A SpaceX rocket has placed four astronauts into orbit, including the 600th man to reach space in 60 years.
The repeatedly delayed flight came just two days after SpaceX brought home four more astronauts from the International Space Station. They were supposed to be there to greet the newcomers, but NASA and SpaceX decided to reverse the order based on the ideal weather for Monday’s recovery in the Gulf of Mexico, and they succeeded.
“It was a great trip, better than we thought,” Mission Commander Raja Chari said shortly after the spacecraft entered orbit.
The launch was just as spectacular for viewers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, as well as on the east coast, as the Falcon rocket thundered through the clouds into space, turning night into day.
Matthias Maurer of Germany claimed the position # 600, according to NASA, based on his mission assignment. He and his three NASA teammates are expected to arrive at the space station in less than 24 hours, more than a week late.
One of the astronauts – NASA is not saying which one – was suspended last week due to an undisclosed medical issue. According to NASA, the crew member made a full recovery.
Officials did not say if it was illness or injury, but noted that it was not COVID-19.
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Bad weather also contributed to the delays of their flights. Chari said trying to launch on Halloween left them “trick instead of fun.” It also rained on Wednesday night as the four astronauts said goodbye to their families for six months, huddled together under their umbrellas, but by the time of launch, things had cleared up.
“Enjoy your stay among the stars. We’ll wave as you fly, ” SpaceX Launch Director Mark Soltis told the crew over the radio.
The list of 600 travelers ranges from those who barely scratched space – like actor William Shatner last month – to American and Russian astronauts who spent a year or more in orbit. The surge in space tourists this year helped push the 600 mark.
This averages 10 people a year since Yuri Gagarin’s first flight in 1961, Maurer said.
“But I think that in a few years time we will see an exponential increase in this figure because we are now entering the era of commercial space travel,” he said after arriving at Kennedy Space Center two weeks ago.
The crew launch marked SpaceX’s fourth flight for NASA and the company’s fifth overall passenger flight – including a four-person charter flight in September that missed the space station.
The Dragon capsule toilet leaked over three days in orbit, requiring a quick upgrade of the flush system in the newest capsule, dubbed by her team as Endurance.
A parachute dropped during Monday’s descent forced SpaceX engineers to scrutinize the data before giving the go-ahead for Wednesday’s launch. One of the four stalls opened more than a minute late – the problem was spotted during testing and is within safety limits, but is still being investigated, officials said.
As of Wednesday, Elon Musk’s company has launched 18 people in 18 months.
“Human space flight was the reason for our founding, so it has a huge impact on the entire team,” said Sarah Walker, manager of SpaceX.
Mauer of the European Space Agency is one of three newcomers to the team. The 51-year-old was a finalist when he first applied for the cosmonaut title. Encouraged, he quit his research job at a medical company and joined the space agency as an engineer, and in 2015 made an astronaut down.
Chari, 44, is an Air Force colonel and the first rookie in space in decades to lead a NASA mission into orbit. Test pilot from Cedar Falls, Iowa, Chari has flown over 2,500 hours on fighters, including sorties in Iraq.
Also on board:
- Dr. Thomas Marshburn, 61, will be the oldest person living aboard a space station to complete a spacewalk. Born in Statesville, North Carolina, he worked as an emergency doctor, then joined NASA as a flight surgeon in 1994. This is his third trip to the space station.
- Kayla Barron, 34, is a commanding officer of the Navy in Richland, Washington. She was one of the first women to serve as a submarine officer. Added to the flight in May, she is # 601 in space.
While parked at the station, they will meet two groups of tourists. Recently, a Russian film crew spent two weeks at the station filming a film.
The new crew will include three station residents – two Russians and Mark Vande Hey of NASA, who celebrated his 55th birthday on Wednesday.
“NASA and @SpaceX are lighting a big candle in the sky for you tonight,” NASA tweeted ahead of the launch.
This candle – the first stage accelerator – fell directly onto the ocean barge.