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SpaceX launch Crew-3 astronauts to the International Space Station – The Washington Post

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Dragon has separated and is on its way to the space station
The first stage booster has landed
Liftoff
About five minutes to go to launch
SpaceX’s next human spaceflight mission won’t have any NASA astronauts on board
SpaceX keeping up a relentless pace
Propellant load has begun
SpaceX is go for propellant load
Setting a Spaceflight Record
Slowly inflating parachute not seen as a problem for this flight
Why SpaceX fuels its Falcon 9 rocket with the astronauts onboard
The hatch is closed; weather looking good
Space station changed course this afternoon to miss Chinese debris in its path
Meet the Crew
There are clouds and rain at Cape Canaveral but SpaceX optimistic it’ll launch on time
Dragon has separated and is on its way to the space station
The first stage booster has landed
Liftoff
About five minutes to go to launch
SpaceX’s next human spaceflight mission won’t have any NASA astronauts on board
SpaceX keeping up a relentless pace
Propellant load has begun
SpaceX is go for propellant load
Setting a Spaceflight Record
Slowly inflating parachute not seen as a problem for this flight
Why SpaceX fuels its Falcon 9 rocket with the astronauts onboard
The hatch is closed; weather looking good
Space station changed course this afternoon to miss Chinese debris in its path
Meet the Crew
There are clouds and rain at Cape Canaveral but SpaceX optimistic it’ll launch on time
Four more astronauts blasted into orbit Wednesday, continuing a historic year of human spaceflight in which a diverse array of people have flown on several different spacecraft to varying parts of the increasingly popular neighborhood just outside Earth’s atmosphere.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 9:03 p.m. Eastern time, carrying a crew of four, including three NASA astronauts and one European, on what is expected to be a 22-hour journey to the International Space Station, where they are to stay for about six months.
The launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was the fifth time that SpaceX has flown humans to orbit and the fourth time it has done so under its contract with NASA. In September, it flew four civilians in what was called the Inspiration4 mission — a three-day flight in the SpaceX Dragon capsule that circled the globe every 90 minutes.
The launch came less than 48 hours after SpaceX had returned the previous astronaut crew from the space station to a picture-perfect splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico — evidence that SpaceX is gaining prowess in multiple aspects of its role as NASA’s primary way to transport goods and people to the space station. The back-to-back flights marked “the shortest turnaround between a splashdown and a launch in human spaceflight history,” according to NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs.
After reaching orbit, NASA astronaut Raja Chari told mission control that, “it was a great ride. Better than we expected.”
The SpaceX launch director told the crew, which will continue the mission on Veterans Day: “It was a pleasure to be part of this mission with you. Enjoy your holiday amongst the stars. We’ll be waving as you fly by.”
The flight comes as a number of companies are working to fly private citizens to space — from the actor William Shatner, 90, who became the oldest person to reach the edge of space, to Oliver Daemen, a student from the Netherlands, who at 18 became the youngest.
Wednesday’s launch, dubbed Crew-3, is commanded by Chari, an Air Force colonel and test pilot who is making his first trip to space. He was joined by Kayla Barron, a Navy lieutenant commander who served on a nuclear submarine, Tom Marshburn, a physician who has flown to space twice before, once on the space shuttle and once on the Russia Soyuz, and European astronaut Matthias Maurer, an engineer from Germany. It is also Barron’s and Maurer’s first trip to space.
The three rookies became the 599th, 600th and 601st people to fly past the 50-mile edge of space, NASA said. The list of space travelers is growing in part because of the efforts of Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which take paying customers just past the edge of space in suborbital trips that fly up and then fall back down to Earth.
Russia continues to fly astronauts on its Soyuz spacecraft and recently said that it would allow its cosmonauts to fly on SpaceX Dragon capsules. China also is flying humans and recently sent up a crew of three to the space station it is assembling in Earth orbit. And NASA’s Orion spacecraft is scheduled to launch early next year without any astronauts onboard on a trip that would go around the moon in preparation for a human landing, perhaps as soon as 2025 under a new schedule NASA announced on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Boeing is working to develop a spacecraft that would fly astronauts to the space station as part of NASA’s “commercial crew” program. But its program has suffered through all sorts of problems and delays. On a test flight without astronauts at the end of 2019, the spacecraft suffered a software problem that forced controllers to truncate the mission and forgo a docking with the station.
Boeing decided to redo the test flight and take a charge of $410 million.
Then over the summer, the Starliner capsule suffered another problem ahead of that do-over, this time with valves that remained stuck in the service module. The flight never got off, and Boeing said last month that it would take another charge, this time of $185 million, to cover the costs of the delay.
During a news conference last month, John Vollmer, Boeing’s program manager for the commercial crew program, declined to say how much the problem would cost the company. But he said “NASA would not bear any responsibility for those costs that are within scope of our contract. … So, we’re not expecting any charge to the government from that side.” He added that the company would not back away from the program as a result of the additional costs. “We are 100 percent committed to fulfilling our contract with the government, and we intend to do that,” he said.
As it continues to solidify its status as NASA’s premier human spaceflight partner, SpaceX, the California company founded by Elon Musk, is also working toward flying more private citizens. It has a mission commissioned by Axiom Space, a Houston-based company, set to take three civilians and a former NASA astronaut, who would serve as their guide, to the space station for about a week.
As those efforts continue, many believe the ranks of space farers will increase dramatically.
“Six hundred in 60 years, it makes for 10 people per year,” Maurer said during a preflight news conference. “But I think in the next few years, we’ll see an exponential rise. Now we’re entering the era for commercial spaceflight.”
Before SpaceX flew its first test flight with a pair of NASA astronauts last year, the space agency had spent nearly a decade after the space shuttle was retired paying for seats on the Russia Soyuz.
Today, with SpaceX, “there are more flight opportunities” for NASA astronauts, said Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut and a professor at the University of Southern California’s school of engineering. “One of the positive impacts is fewer people having to train over in Russia. That was a major strain and stress on families.”
The Crew-3 mission is slated to dock with the space station at 7:10 p.m. Eastern time Thursday. While onboard the orbiting laboratory, the astronauts will be conducting what NASA says is “new and exciting scientific research in areas such as materials science, health technologies, and plant science to prepare for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit and benefit life on Earth.”
In a press briefing after the launch Wednesday, Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager said called it a “perfect launch.”
“The crew is doing great and were in great spirits prior to launch and are in great spirits on orbit,” he said.
The Dragon spacecraft has separated from the second stage and is now on its own flying the four astronauts to the International Space Station. It will take the spacecraft about 22 hours to reach the station, which orbits the Earth at 17,500 m.p.h. It appears that all of the initial stages of the flight have gone well so far.
The reusable Falcon 9 booster has landed on an autonomous ship in the Atlantic Ocean. While not a crucial part of the mission, SpaceX flies its boosters back to Earth so that they can be reused. Before SpaceX developed the technology, first stage boosters typically fell into the ocean, never to be used again.
The ship will come back to Port Canaveral in Florida, where crews will recover the booster and refurbish it to get it ready for another flight.
The Falcon 9 rocket carry NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshurn and Kayla Barron as well as European astronaut Matthias Maurer has lifted off from launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. If all goes well, the second stage should separate and ignite its engine while the first stage flies back to land on an autonomous ship at sea.
About 12 minutes after liftoff, the Dragon spacecraft should separate from the second stage to begin its journey to the International Space Station.
The countdown is entering its final stages, and everything continues to proceed toward launch. The Dragon spacecraft will transition to internal power, as the flight computers perform the last preflight checks. A launch at 9:03 p.m. seems all but certain.
“Everything is still looking good for launch of Falcon 9 and Dragon,” SpaceX’s John Insprucker said on the live broadcast.
SpaceX has a $2.6 billion contract with NASA to fly its astronauts to the International Space Station. But its next scheduled flight after this one is a private one that will carry four private citizens to orbit in February.
The mission has been put together by Axiom Space, a Houston-based company, which has booked three passengers, each of whom paid $55 million each for the trip. They’ll spend eight days on the station.
The trio — Larry Connor, the managing partner of the Connor Group, a real estate investment firm based in Ohio; Mark Pathy, the chief executive of Mavrik Corp., a Canadian investment firm; and Eytan Stibbe, a businessman and former Israeli Air Force fighter pilot — will lift off from the Kennedy Space Center aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.
Accompanying them will be Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut who flew to space four times and is now a vice president of Axiom Space. López-Alegría is overseeing their training and will serve as the mission’s commander.
That flight will be SpaceX’s second flight with private citizens. In September, SpaceX flew a crew of four in orbit around the Earth for three days. That mission, known as Inspiration4, was funded by Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur who participated in the flight.
Driven by Elon Musk, SpaceX has kept up a torrid pace for years, which is one of the reasons it has been so successful — even if many employees get burned out and leave.
This week is yet another example of how quickly the company moves.
On Monday, it flew four astronauts home from the International Space Station on a more than eight-hour journey that saw them plunge through the atmosphere and generate temperatures of more than 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico at 10:33 p.m. Eastern time.
Now, less than 48 hours later, the company is gearing up to launch its next crew to the station.
“We know it’s another intense period,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s vice president for build and flight reliability. The teams “have been working pretty hard. But they’re going to get some time off here to rest up a little bit. … We’ll be rested. We’ll be ready. We’ve done the detailed data review. I don’t consider this rushed. If we felt we needed more time, we would have asked NASA for a little bit more time to go ahead and delay and move things.”
Top leaders at SpaceX and NASA have been overseeing the flight, he said, and the bottom line is that they would not fly if they didn’t think they could do so safely.
“We went through to make sure we are doing everything possible to make sure that Crew-3 is safe,” he said. “If we saw something else we needed to do, any of our folks could say we need to take a break and we could stand down and stop.”
SpaceX is now fueling the Falcon 9 rocket with rocket-grade kerosene and liquid oxygen, one of the last major milestones before launch.
The SpaceX launch director has called for the rocket to be loaded with propellant, another sign that the mission is proceeding swiftly to launch at 9:03 p.m. Eastern. The crew access arm has also retracted, and crews will arm the Dragon spacecraft’s emergency abort system, which is designed to jettison the astronauts away from the booster in the event of an emergency.
When the Crew-3 astronauts board the space station, they’ll join two Russian cosmonauts, Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov as well as NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei.
In September, NASA announced that Vande Hei and Dubrov were having their stay on the station extended until March 2022, stretching their time aboard to nearly a year. The space agency didn’t say how long the mission would last. But Vande Hei wrote on Twitter that it would last about 353 days, which would break the all-time duration record by an American astronaut. The record for longest single spaceflight is currently held by Scott Kelly, who spent 340 days on the station.
Vande Hei, a retired Army colonel, wrote that the extended stay was “a possibility that I was prepared for from the beginning. The opportunity to experience this with wonderful crewmates while contributing to science and future exploration is exciting!”
Vande Hei was selected by NASA to be an astronaut in 2009 and previously served as a “capsule communicator,” the person in mission control who speaks with the astronauts while they are in space. He previously flew to space on the Russian Soyuz in 2018.
The launch of the Crew-3 astronauts came just two days after their counterparts on the previous Crew-2 mission returned from the space station. Even though one of the four main parachutes inflated at a slower rate than the others, the flight home was “flawless,” Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said in a briefing Tuesday night. “We really don’t see any issues proceeding into the launch.”
The teams looked in detail at the parachute issue — in which the fourth chute opened 75 seconds after the other three — and concluded it was not a cause for concern and should not force a delay for the Crew-3 launch. When there is a configuration of four parachutes, it is not unusual to have one lag behind, said Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s vice president for build and flight reliability.
“It performed essentially the way it was designed to perform,” he said. He also noted that, “we can land with three parachutes if we have to.”
He said the recovery teams pulled the parachutes out of the water after splashdown and flew them by helicopter to SpaceX’s facility at Cape Canaveral, Fla. There, they were inspected “with a NASA team and a SpaceX team to make sure that there was nothing in that parachute that we didn’t understand.”
SpaceX also reached out to the “parachute vendor to make sure that they were comfortable with where we’re going,” he said, adding that they also reviewed the manufacturing records of these parachutes to make sure everything was in order.
“We’ve done an extremely thorough review, and everything looks like we’re in a good place to go fly,” Gerstenmaier said.
Being able to recover the vehicle and inspect it “is really a gift for us. We’re still learning how to operate these vehicles. We’re learning how to fly in space. And the way to do that safely is you’d keep looking at the data and you learn from each and every flight.”
Traditionally in human spaceflight, ground crews fueled the rocket before the astronauts arrived. This was how it was done with the space shuttle and before.
But SpaceX does it differently.
It loads the astronauts first, and then begins fueling the rocket. Initially, this concerned many in the space community, including members of NASA’s Aerospace Advisory Board, who feared that handling highly combustible propellants while the astronauts sat on top of the rocket was a risky prospect.
Those concerns were exacerbated in 2016 when a Falcon 9 rocket exploded while it was being fueled ahead of an engine test. But since then, SpaceX has followed this fueling regimen many times successfully, and NASA has signed off on the procedure, known informally as “load and go.”
The reason SpaceX fuels its rocket right before flight is because it supercools its liquid oxygen, bringing it down to minus-340 degrees Fahrenheit. The colder the propellant is, the denser it is, allowing SpaceX to pack more of it into the rocket, and that, in turn, allows for greater performance. As the rocket is being fueled it is engulfed by steam clouds that form as the propellants boils off.
SpaceX needs the additional propellant because it not only lights its rocket engines at liftoff, but again as the first stage booster heads back to Earth for a landing so that it can be reused again.
Support crews have closed the hatch of the Dragon spacecraft, another important milestone on the way to launch. The crews spent a fair amount of time inspecting the seal around the hatch, making sure there were no leaks.
Meanwhile, a storm passed over Cape Canaveral earlier this evening. But it has since passed, officials have said, and the weather officer has confirmed that the range is currently go for launch.
At about 3 p.m. Wednesday, NASA ground controllers maneuvered the space station to avoid a piece of debris hurtling through space.
The maneuver “will have no impact to the launch time,” Joel Mantalbano, NASA’s space station program manager, told reporters during a briefing Tuesday night. “It’s something that the SpaceX team can easily accommodate and they’re planning. And we’re working closely with the flight control teams to make sure that that work is done.”
Dodging debris has become routine for the space station, which orbits at about 240 miles above the Earth. Space is increasingly polluted with spent satellites and the detritus of past collisions. And traveling at some 17,500 mph, debris can pose a serious threat to the astronauts on board the station. Even small pieces can hit with enormous force, and so controllers on the ground are always on the lookout.
The piece of debris that’s coming uncomfortably close to the space station originated with a 2007 incident when China blew up a dead weather satellite, part of a test to demonstrate its ability to take out satellites on orbit, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics. The missile strike created a cloud of more than 3,000 pieces, which according to the Secure World Foundation, a think tank, is “the largest ever tracked, and much of it will remain in orbit for decades, posing a significant collision threat to other space objects in low Earth orbit.”
McDowell wrote on Twitter that more than 2,700 pieces of debris from the test remain in orbit today and that this would be at least the third time the space station has had to move to avoid debris from the China satellite strike.
SpaceX’s third operational human spaceflight mission to the space station has a full contingent of four astronauts, three from NASA and one representing the European Space Agency.
The mission is being commanded by NASA astronaut Raja Chari, an Air Force colonel and test pilot, who is making his first trip to space. He is joined by another rookie, Kayla Barron, a Navy lieutenant commander who served on a nuclear submarine, and Tom Marshburn, a physician who has flown to space twice before, once on the space shuttle Endeavour and once on the Russia Soyuz.
European astronaut Matthias Maurer, an engineer from Germany, is also on board for his first spaceflight.
The three rookies will become the 599th, 600th and 601st people to fly past the 50-mile edge of space, NASA said.

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