CAPE CANAVERAL (Fla.) -- SpaceX has just launched its fourth mission as part of NASA's commercial crew program.
A Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon capsule was topped by a slightly sooty Falcon 9 rocket. It took off from NASA's historic Pad 39A at 9:03 PM EST (0200 Nov. 11, GMT) to light up the night sky above NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
SpaceX's Crew-3 mission was launched. It will take four astronauts, NASA's Raja Chari and Tom Marshburn, along with Matthias Maurer, from the European Space Agency, on a 22-hour flight towards the International Space Station (ISS).
After the Crew-3 crew reached orbit safely, Chari, Commander of Crew-3, said to NASA's mission control, "Thanks for a great ride; It was better than we thought."
Live updates: SpaceX's Crew-3 mission to the astronauts for NASA
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched four astronauts to International Space Station via NASA's Kennedy Space Station, Florida. The Crew-3 mission was conducted on Nov. 10, 2021. Joel Kowsky/NASA.
After a few delays due to weather, Crew-3's launch countdown went smoothly. The closeout crews completed critical leak and communications checks well ahead of schedule. As the minutes ticked by, the crew appeared relaxed and ready to take on the challenge.
Bob Cabana, NASA associate administrator, said during the live broadcast that it was a "beautiful launch." It was another amazing experience to see those four rocket into space tonight.
The rocket lit up the night sky with the glow of the first stage engines of the Falcon 9.
Chari radioed SpaceX flight control just before liftoff, "Sometimes you get a trick rather than a treat when you fly on Halloween." "We are honored to fly Endurance on Veterans Day, and we're proud that we will be representing NASA and SpaceX as we live and work at the ISS for six months."
Crew-3 was the 25th launch in Florida this year and the 24th for SpaceX so far this year. Although the rocket was a SpaceX veteran, it was launching on its second mission. The Dragon Crew capsule, however, was brand new.
The capsule, nicknamed Dragon Endurance by Crew, is carrying Crew-3 aboard a six-month mission to the ISS. It launched 12 days after its original launch date. Chari, Marshburn Barron, Maurer and Barron arrived in Florida on October 26, just days before the planned Halloween launch.
Crew-3 astronauts from SpaceX are seen in their Crew Dragon Endurance before a planned launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Pad 39A, Nov. 10, 2021. NASA TV image credit
Launch was delayed by poor weather on the rocket's flight path. The launch was further delayed by bad weather and minor medical issues with one of the astronauts. NASA did not provide any details due to privacy concerns for the astronaut.
The agency decided that it was better to return the astronauts from the previous mission -- NASA's Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Thomas Pesquet, ESA's Thomas Pesquet, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Akihiko Hashide -- before they launch their replacements.
The astronauts climbed into their Dragon spacecraft and left the station on Monday afternoon. They landed in the Gulf of Mexico just hours later. The crew returned to Houston already with their families and left Mark Vande Hei, a NASA astronaut, in charge of introducing Crew-3 crew members to the ISS.
Marshburn, the Crew-3's only veteran space flyer, stated to Space.com before launch that he was looking forward to going to space with his crewmates, two of whom have never been. Barron had never witnessed a rocket launch. Her first flight, and her first in space, was her own.
SpaceX is growing
In the early years, six people were launched into space by NASA as part of Project Mercury, NASA's first human spaceflight program. SpaceX today lifted off, putting 18 people in orbit in less that two years. This includes four private citizens who flew a three-day round the Earth trip as part of the Inspiration4 mission.
Four of the five flights were part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program. This program contracted private companies to construct spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to and fro the ISS. This program was created to foster a low-Earth orbit commercial economy, in which NASA is the customer and not the provider. The agency could then hire a space taxi service, such as the Crew Dragon, to transport them between Earth and ISS. This would allow the agency to concentrate on deep-space exploration projects, like Artemis. Artemis, NASA's latest lunar exploration program, aims to return humans to the moon.
NASA relied on its space shuttle fleet to transport astronauts into space and also to build the International Space Station. It has been continuously occupied since 2000. However, the shuttle was only used for a short time. NASA decided to retire the shuttle and instead gave control of low-Earth orbit to the private sector. SpaceX and Boeing were chosen to transport astronauts from NASA's space station. SpaceX has built Crew Dragon, a modified version of its robotic Dragon cargo capsule. Boeing is currently developing the CST-100 Starliner capsule.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon Endurance, a SpaceX rocket, is seen with the moon while it waits for a launch on Nov. 3, 2021 from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. SpaceX image credit
Crew Dragon launched its fourth astronaut crew for NASA on Wednesday, making it the fifth Crew Dragon flight overall. Meanwhile, Boeing's Starliner spacecraft struggles to leave the launchpad. Crew Dragon launched its first crew capsule in 2019, as part of an uncrewed flight testing that would see it launch, dock to the space station and land. Unfortunately, the capsule experienced an anomaly during the flight and was unable reach the space station. Analyses that followed revealed multiple problems with the software of the capsule.
NASA and Boeing spent 18 months analyzing the data and making adjustments to the software and spacecraft. The company attempted to launch Starliner in August on a second uncrewed flight, but bad weather and an anomaly in the capsule's propulsion system prevented it from being launched.
The propellant valves inside the spacecraft were stuck closed. Crews tried to solve the problem and were able unstick most of them. However, the crew was unable to remove the remaining four valves so they had to transport the Starliner back to the Boeing facilities at Cape Town. The launch has been put on hold while the teams investigate the problem.
Launch by clicking "Go!"
Weather was the only thing that could have prevented Crew-3's launch on Wednesday. NASA and SpaceX teams met Tuesday night (Nov. 9), to discuss the mission before giving the go-ahead to launch.
Crew-2's splashdown saw one of the Dragon’s main parachutes fail to deploy. This raised concerns about the Crew-3 flight. NASA and SpaceX both confirmed that the chute performed as expected. The chute was able to descend at the expected rate.
"We had one parachute [on Crew-2 Dragon] that inflated a little slower than others," Steve Stich (NASA's Commercial Crew Program Manager) said during Tuesday's briefing. "But landing rates were minimal. After analyzing the data, we have concluded that we are ready for launch.
Three hours prior to launch, the four Crew-3 astronauts arrived at the pad in their white Tesla Model Xs adorned by the old NASA logo. They climbed into the capsule by taking an elevator from their arrival to the crew access arm at 265 feet (81 metres) above the launchpad.
After several system checks, they then arm the Crew Dragon's abort device, which is crucial in keeping them safe in case of an emergency. SpaceX began to fuel the rocket with supercooled liquid oxygen (kerosene) 45 minutes prior to liftoff.
The space station will dock Endurance with it on Thursday, November 11, at 7:10 PM EST (0010 Nov. 12, GMT). The crew and the capsule will stay at the orbital outpost for six more months.
Image 1 of 3 The Crew-3 mission, in which four astronauts were sent to the International Space Station by NASA's Kennedy Space Station in Florida, saw the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch four astronauts. (Image credit NASA TV. Image 2 of 3 SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches four astronauts into the International Space Station, launching them from NASA's Kennedy Space Station in Florida. This is the Crew-3 mission that took place on Nov. 10, 2021. Image 3 of 3 The Crew Dragon Endurance and the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket are ready to launch the Crew-3 mission for NASA from Pad 39A, Kennedy Space Center on November 10, 2021. NASA TV image credit
Today's mission marks SpaceX's 127th flight with its Falcon 9 rocket and the 93rd landing on a first-stage booster.
SpaceX's first Falcon 9 booster was recovered in December 2015. The first stage launched a communications satellite into orbit for OrbComm. It then returned to Earth, landing on the SpaceX landing pad in Florida.
The company's first booster was recovered on a floating platform at the sea, which is now known as a droneship. SpaceX currently has two drone ships in its fleet: "Of course I Still Love You" and "Just Read the Instructions". Although landing on a drone ship at sea can be more convenient than landing on solid ground, it requires much less fuel and takes up less space.
SpaceX has two drone ships available to it, which has been a huge help in its reusability efforts. SpaceX launched 26 missions in 2020, only five of which were on new rockets. Rest were on used Falcon 9 rockets. Most of the recoveries took place on board a drone ship.
SpaceX will be moving its OCISLY booster catcher, which is its most powerful booster catcher, to the West Coast in 2021. It plans on increasing launches from its California-based launch sites. A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG) was then added to the fleet.
The drone ship is significantly improved over its predecessors and can now drive itself. Although it still requires a tug to get into and out of Port Canaveral for its drive, ASOG will eventually be able to drive itself between the recovery zones.
SpaceX initially planned to have JRTI as the recovery vessel for Crew-3, but delays meant that the ship had to sail through rough seas in the Atlantic. SpaceX's Bill Gerstenmeier explained to Space.com that while drone ships can withstand rough seas for several days, this ship was not built for that. The team decided to change ships to allow the JRTI crews to rest.
ASOG left Port Canaveral Tuesday to support Crew-3, and arrived at the designated recovery area to await its return booster just hours before launch. The booster's flight was completed at 9:09 PM EST (0209 GMT Nov. 11). It was the 93rd landing on a Falcon 9 first stage, and ASOG's second catch.
The crew will dock with the orbital station on Thursday, 22 hours after today's launch (0010 GMT Nov. 12). Space.com allows you to live-tweet the docking and monitor the entire mission.
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