The 27-hour journey to the space station, an orbiting laboratory some 400 km above Earth, was originally scheduled to begin on Saturday. But the launch was postponed by a day due to predictions of wind gusts – remnants of tropical storm Eta – that would make it difficult for the Falcon 9 to return to the reusable booster stage, NASA officials said.
The astronauts donned their custom white flight suits and arrived at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad at 4:30 PM in three white Tesla SUVs, flanked by NASA and SpaceX personnel.
SpaceX mission operator Jay Aranha, speaking from the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, told the crew to “have a fantastic trip and know we are all for one.”
Mission Commander Mike Hopkins responded by saying “to all the people of NASA and SpaceX, working together in these troubled times, you have inspired the nation around the world.”
“And now it’s time for us to do our part, crew 1 for all,” said Hopkins.
Vice President Mike Pence attended the launch and said in advance that under President Donald Trump, America had “renewed our commitment to lead human space exploration.”
President-elect Joe Biden tweeted his congratulations, saying the launch was “a testament to the power of science.”
FIRST PRIVATE MISSION
NASA is calling flight its first “operational” mission for a missile and crew vehicle system that has been in the works for 10 years. It represents a new era of commercially developed spacecraft – owned and operated by a private entity rather than NASA – to send Americans into orbit.
A test flight by the SpaceX Crew Dragon in August, carrying just two astronauts to and from the space station, marked NASA’s first human space mission launched from U.S. soil in nine years, following the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. In the following years, US astronauts had to hitchhike to enter orbit aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
NASA contracted SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to develop competing space capsules to replace its shuttle program and wean the United States of reliance on Russian rockets to send astronauts into space.
SpaceX’s launch on Sunday was the first of six operational missions for NASA. The company has also booked private astronaut missions, including one planned to transport actor Tom Cruise in the coming years.
Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX who is also the CEO of electric carmaker and battery maker Tesla Inc, did not witness the Kennedy Space Center launch control room take off, NASA officials said. Musk said on Saturday he “most likely” has a moderate case of Covid-19.
SpaceX and NASA conducted the contact tracing and determined that Musk had not come into contact with anyone who had interacted with the astronauts.
“Our astronauts have been in quarantine for weeks and they shouldn’t have had contact with anyone,” NASA chief Jim Bridenstine said Friday. “They should be in good shape.”