Cape Canaveral, Fla. ( Associated Press) — SpaceX launched four astronauts for NASA to the International Space Station on Wednesday, less than two days after completing a flight chartered by millionaires.
It is NASA’s first crew to consist of equally men and women, including Jessica Watkins, the first black woman to have built a long-haul spaceflight.
“It’s one of the most diverse, I think, crews that we’ve had in a really, really long time,” Kathy Leiders, NASA’s chief of space operations missions, said on the eve of the launch.
The astronauts were due to arrive at the space station on Wednesday night, 16 hours after their prior liftoff from Kennedy Space Center. They will spend five months in the orbiting lab.
SpaceX has now launched five crew and two private trips for NASA in just two years. Elon Musk’s company has had a particularly busy few weeks: It just finished three businessmen commuting to and from the space station As NASA’s first personal guest.
A week after the new crew arrives, the three Americans and the Germans they are replacing will return to Earth in their own SpaceX capsules. Three Russians also live on the space station.
Officials from both SpaceX and NASA stressed that they are taking it one step at a time to ensure safety. There were no major problems in the private mission that ended on Monday, although strong winds delayed the spraying for a week, he said.
SpaceX Launch Control wished the astronauts moments of good luck and godspeed before the Falcon rocket was detonated by its crew with a capsule named Freedom.
“We extend our heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you who made this possible. Now let the Falcon roar and Freedom Ring,” said NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, Commander. Minutes later, their reentry booster had landed on an ocean platform and their capsule was safely orbiting Earth. “It was a great ride,” he said.
SpaceX capsules are fully automated – which opens the door to space for a wider clientele – and they are designed to accommodate a wide 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 went on to stay for long. Watkins, a geologist who is on NASA’s shortlist for a moon-landing mission in the coming years, sees his mission as “an important milestone, I think, for both the agency and the country”. .
She credits supportive family and mentors—including Mae Jameson, the first black woman in space in 1992—for “finally being able to live my dream.”
Another geologist was also cheering on Watkins: Harrison Schmidt of Apollo 17, who walked on the Moon in 1972. He invited the retired astronaut along with his wife for the launch. “We consider ourselves Jessica’s team,” he said, chuckled.
“Those of us who ride the Saturn V in space are a little nervous about small rockets,” Schmidt said after SpaceX liftoff. “But still, it was really something and there was a geologist on board … I hope it puts him in a good position to be part of one of the Artemis crews going to the Moon.”
Like Watkins, NASA astronaut and test pilot Bob Hines is making his first space flight. This is the second visit by the European Space Agency’s lone female astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, a former Italian Air Force fighter pilot, and Lindgren, a physician.
The recently completed private flight was NASA’s first plunge into space tourism after years of protests. The three people who paid $55 million to visit the space station, the space agency said, mixed experiments and educational outreach. He was accompanied by a former NASA astronaut employed by Houston-based Axiom Space, which arranged the flight.
“The International Space Station is not a vacation spot. It is not an amusement park. It is an international laboratory, and they fully understand and respect that purpose,” said NASA Flight Director Zeb Scoville.
NASA also hired Boeing to ferry astronauts after retiring the shuttle. The company will take another shot next month Upon receiving an empty crew capsule for the space station, its 2019 test flight failed and halted again last summer after software and other problems.
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