The first two launches of NASA astronauts by Elon Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX, worked like a charm.
The third worked like a charm too — a string of successes over the past year that is making human spaceflight look routine, as NASA and Mr. Musk’s company intend it to.
At 5:49 a.m. Eastern time, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A smooth countdown proceeded through the early morning, and even ran ahead of schedule at times.
The mission, Crew-2, is carrying two American, one Japanese and one French astronaut to the International Space Station. It is a continuation of a successful effort by the space agency to turn over to the private sector the business of taking people to low-Earth orbit.
SpaceX conducted a demonstration mission with two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, a year ago. The capsule, named Endeavour, with the two men then splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean in August.
Months later, SpaceX conducted what NASA called the first routine operational mission for the Crew Dragon spacecraft with four astronauts onboard. That mission, Crew-1, launched in November, and the astronauts are still aboard the station, scheduled to return to Earth next week.
Today’s launch was the second operational mission. The Crew-2 astronauts are traveling in the same Endeavour capsule used in the demonstration mission last year.
At the news conference following Friday’s successful launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, NASA’s press secretary urged everyone to keep questions focused on the Crew-2 mission. But reporter after reporter asked Elon Musk about the moon instead.
Last week, NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to build the lander that NASA will use to take astronauts back to the surface of the moon, adapting a giant rocket called Starship that SpaceX has been developing for trips to Mars.
“It’s a great honor to be chosen by NASA to return to the moon,” Mr. Musk said.
He then expressed his hopes for building a permanent base on the moon, then a city on Mars. “We don’t want to be one of those single-planet species,” Mr. Musk said. “We want to be a multi-planet species.”
Currently, the schedule for the lunar program, Artemis, has astronauts landing on the moon in 2024, a timetable that is widely regarded as unlikely, especially as Congress has not provided as much money for the development of lunar landers as NASA has requested. The space agency had hoped to award contracts to two companies to develop two different landers.
Mr. Musk noted that he had been “somewhat optimistic” about SpaceX schedules in the past. (Development of SpaceX rockets and spacecraft have generally taken about twice as long as Mr. Musk predictions.) But he then added that Starship could be ready to carry people in a couple of years.
“Obviously, we need to like not be making craters,” he said, and laughed. “Otherwise, it’s like, ‘Hop in, we’re going to Mars — nope, not quite!’”
SpaceX has been launching a series of prototypes from its site in southern Texas, near Brownsville. It is trying to perfect a technique whereby Starship very gently belly flops, using air resistance as a brake and then tipping upward just before landing. The last four flights have ended in fiery crashes, although one did manage to land in a single piece before exploding a few minutes later.
“The thing that’s really important to revolutionize space is a rapidly reusable rocket,” he said. “That is the gateway to the heavens.”
Still, Mr. Musk said, the 2024 target was achievable despite the technical challenges.
“We’re going to build a lot of rockets, and then we’re going to probably smash a bunch of them,” Mr. Musk said. “But I think it will happen. I think 2024, it seems likely.”
About four hours ahead of the launch on Friday morning, the four astronauts had put on their spacesuits. Masked SpaceX suit technicians in black uniforms attended to the four crewmates, who sat in models of the seats aboard the capsule that will carry them to orbit.
Once the astronauts completed suiting up, they were seen off by Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, and Steve Jurczyk, the acting administrator of NASA.
John Insprucker, a SpaceX engineer said “things were looking good” with the spacecraft and the weather ahead of the launch.
About three hours and 15 minutes before liftoff, the four astronauts and other crew sat down in Tesla Model X SUVs with license plates that read “REDUCE,” “RECYCLE” and “REUSE.” Before the cars drove toward the launchpad, they said socially distanced goodbyes to their families.
The four crewmates arrived at the launch site and were soon on board the Crew Dragon capsule with about two hours and 30 minutes to go before launch. Shane Kimbrough, the mission commander, and Megan McArthur, the pilot, boarded first, and were followed by Thomas Pesquet, Crew-2’s specialist and Akihiko Hoshide, the flight’s engineer.
About 45 minutes ahead of the launch, SpaceX began loading propellent into the rocket. The countdown proceeded smoothly, and a camera captured the International Space Station crossing the night sky over the Kennedy Space Center as it orbited the planet.
In the final minutes of the countdown, Mr. Kimbrough said a few words ahead of launch.
“Off the Earth, for the Earth, Endeavour is ready to go,” he said, referring to the name of this particular Crew Dragon capsule. The astronauts then briefly clasped each other’s hands.
After the capsule reached orbit, Mr. Kimbrough said, “It’s great to be back in space.”
The astronauts also posted the playlists of music they said they planned to listen to during their drives to the launchpad.
The Crew-2 astronauts are to spend six months at the International Space Station.
Akihiko Hoshide of JAXA, the Japanese space agency. Mr. Hoshide, 52, has made two previous trips to space. He was a member of the crew of the space shuttle Discovery in 2008, and in 2012 he spent four months on the space station.
Shane Kimbrough of NASA. Mr. Kimbrough, 53, is the commander of Crew-2. He has made two previous trips to space, once on the space shuttle Endeavour in 2008 and then spending more than six months on the space station from October 2016 to April 2017.
K. Megan McArthur of NASA. Dr. McArthur, 49, is the mission’s pilot and previously flew on the space shuttle Atlantis in May 2009 on the last mission to refurbish and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. During that mission, Dr. McArthur, an oceanographer by training, operated the shuttle’s robotic arm to grab the telescope and place it in the cargo bay.
Dr. McArthur is married to Bob Behnken, one of the astronauts who traveled on the first astronaut flight of the same SpaceX capsule last year. She will sit in the seat he occupied during that flight.
Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency. Mr. Pesquet, 43, previously spent six months on the space station from November 2016 to June 2017, overlapping with Mr. Kimbrough for most of his stay. He is from France.
Hours before the launch, the astronauts start to get into their trademark SpaceX spacesuits with the help of technicians. They then bid farewell to their families and head out to the launchpad in Tesla Model X S.U.V.s. (A bit of cross-marketing between SpaceX and Tesla, both run by Mr. Musk.)
After they arrive at the launchpad, the astronauts board the capsule and spend hours working with mission control to confirm that its systems are ready for flight.
The launch is timed to when the space station’s orbit passes over Florida. When the capsule reaches orbit, it will be directly behind the space station but traveling faster in a lower orbit. That allows the Crew Dragon to catch up for docking at 5:10 a.m. on Saturday.
During their 23-some hours in flight, the astronauts will change out of their spacesuits, eat a meal or two, rest and provide updates to mission control.
Once the capsule docks with the station — an automated process — it then takes a couple of hours of checking to make sure there are no air leaks before the hatches open and the Crew-2 astronauts disembark.
Without hospitals or medical specialists in space, NASA and other space agencies have always been concerned about astronauts falling sick during a mission. To minimize the chances of that, they typically spend the two weeks before launch in quarantine.
A Covid-19 superspreader event at the space station would disrupt operations.
The interior of the space station has a volume equivalent to a Boeing 747 jetliner, so there would be space for infected crew members to isolate themselves. But space station managers certainly would not want to worry about the virus spreading in the station’s perpetually filtered and recycled air.
During a news conference last week, Shane Kimbrough, the NASA astronaut who is the commander of Crew-2, said all four astronauts had received Covid vaccinations. “I guess it went fine,” he said. “We all have a little bit different reactions, just like most people do. So we’re no different in that regard. But we’re thankful that we have the vaccines.”
The four astronauts of the Crew-1 mission are not, because no vaccines were available when they launched last November. When they return to Earth, every human not on the planet will be vaccinated against Covid-19.
In the past, NASA led the design and operation of the vehicles for its astronauts, including the first Mercury capsules, the Apollo spacecraft that went to the moon and the space shuttles.
But that was expensive. And since the space shuttles stopped flying in 2011, NASA has had to pay Russia for pricey rides to orbit using the country’s Soyuz rockets.
NASA also selected a second company, Boeing, but Boeing’s offering, the CST-100 Starliner, suffered serious software glitches during an uncrewed test flight in December 2019. A redo of that uncrewed test is to occur later this year, and the first trip with astronauts may not occur until next year.
The Crew Dragon is a gumdrop-shaped capsule — an upgraded version of SpaceX’s original Dragon capsule, which was used to carry cargo to the space station. This particular capsule, named Endeavour, was used in the first demonstration trip with two astronauts aboard last May.
The spacecraft is roughly comparable in size to the Apollo capsule that took NASA astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. SpaceX says the Crew Dragon can be configured with seating for seven people. But for the NASA trips, there will be just four astronauts at a time.
The four astronauts who launched to orbit in November during the Crew-1 mission are still at the space station. Those four astronauts and the Crew-1 capsule are scheduled to return to Earth on April 28.
The Crew Dragon is far more advanced than what NASA astronauts sat in 50 years ago and even sleeker than the space shuttles. Fancy touch screens replace the buttons and joysticks that were used in earlier spacecraft.
If you think you’re able to fly a Crew Dragon yourself, SpaceX provided a web version of the system that the NASA astronauts would use if they needed to override the spacecraft’s automated systems. Some YouTube users have helpfully explained how to actually complete the docking.
The era of astronauts subsisting on toothpaste-like tubes has long past, and food in space is much more appetizing than it once was.
Indeed, Thomas Pesquet, the French astronaut on Crew-2, will have some fine dining options prepared by renowned French chefs awaiting him in space. Here are some of the foods that Mr. Pesquet and his fellow astronauts will enjoy during his six-month stay in orbit: lobster, beef bourguignon, cod with black rice, potato cakes with wild mushrooms and almond tarts with caramelized pears.
Alain Ducasse, a chef who operates renowned restaurants around the world including Benoit in Manhattan, and Thierry Marx, another Michelin-starred chef, are among the masters of gastronomy on Earth who have worked with space agencies to produce these meals.
That’s part of efforts to have meals available that astronauts can share with their colleagues to celebrate special occasions. But even everyday space cuisine that NASA now provides for astronauts these days is “pretty fantastic,” said Shane Kimbrough, the NASA astronaut who commands Friday’s SpaceX mission.
Ryan Dowdy, who just left NASA after managing food on the space station for more than two years, says there are some 200 items on the menu to ward off monotony. “There’s no grocery store,” he said. “You can’t DoorDash anything. You got to make do with what’s there.”
He says the pulled beef brisket and the macaroni and cheese are particularly scrumptious.
In recent days, Russian officials have said they are considering ending their participation with the International Space Station in 2025, which is when operations are currently set to end.
But American officials are looking to extend the station’s life to 2028 or maybe 2030. They so far do not seem concerned. The Russian news agency TASS reported that Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency, said that the exit would be gradual.
The officials said they would work toward building a new Russian space station, although they did not say how the country’s underfunded space program could sustain one. With the Crew Dragon becoming operational, the Russian space program lost one of its main sources of revenue: NASA buying seats on the Soyuz rockets.
NASA is negotiating an agreement with Russia in which NASA astronauts would continue to ride on the Soyuz in exchange for Russian astronauts going to space in SpaceX and Boeing capsules. In that arrangement, no money would be exchanged, but it would help ensure that astronauts would be familiar with all of the equipment.
The announcement has also come as bilateral tensions have grown between the United States and Russia. Last week, President Biden formally blamed Moscow for hacking operations and placed sanctions on Russian entities. Russia has also entered into an agreement with China to work toward a lunar base in the coming decade.
Still, cooperation between the two countries in space goes back decades before the Soviet Union fell apart. Even in 1975, during the Cold War, NASA and Soviet spacecraft docked in orbit, and the astronauts greeted each other. Later, American space shuttles flew to the Russian Mir space station, and several NASA astronauts lived aboard Mir.
Astronauts have lived on the International Space Station continuously for more than 20 years. Because the Crew Dragon has four seats for astronauts, one more than the Russian Soyuz has, the size of the space station crew is now seven most of the time. (For a few days after Crew-2 arrives, the population in space will be up to 11 until the Crew-1 astronauts return to Earth on April 28.)
The astronauts’ work on the space station is split between maintaining the station and conducting scientific experiments that take advantage of the near zero-gravity environment.
One maintenance priority for the new crew, NASA says, is installing new flexible and compact solar arrays to power the station, which has long been powered by rigid arrays.
They also exercise on average two hours a day, which helps counteract the physical consequences of space like the atrophying of muscles and draining of bone density.
Not everyone in a Crew Dragon will be a professional astronaut. Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire, has purchased a launch that is to take off as soon as September. Three other people will join him on what is to be the first all-civilian trip to orbit, which he calls Inspiration4.
In assembling the crew, Mr. Isaacman sought to bring together a group of people more diverse than have traditionally become astronauts. The other three people are Hayley Arceneaux, who is a cancer survivor and who, at 30, is to become the youngest American to go to space; Chris Sembroski, a longtime space enthusiast who works for Lockheed Martin; and Sian Proctor, a community college professor who was close to being selected as a NASA astronaut in 2009.
Two companies, Axiom Space and Space Adventures, say they also have agreements with SpaceX to take tourists to orbit. The Axiom trip, which will take its four passengers for a stay at the space station, will launch no earlier than January.