CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station on Sunday on the first full-fledged taxi flight for NASA by a private company.
The Falcon rocket thundered into the night from Kennedy Space Center with three Americans and one Japanese, the second crew to be launched by SpaceX. The Dragon capsule on top — named Resilience by its crew in light of this year's many challenges, most notably COVID-19 — reached orbit nine minutes later. It is due to reach the space station late Monday and remain there until spring.
"By working together through these difficult times, you've inspired the nation, the world, and in no small part the name of this incredible vehicle, Resilience," Commander Mike Hopkins said right before liftoff.
Once reaching orbit, he radioed: "That was one heck of a ride."
Sidelined by the coronavirus himself, SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk was forced to monitor the action from afar. He tweeted that he "most likely" had a moderate case of COVID-19. NASA policy at Kennedy Space Center requires anyone testing positive for coronavirus to quarantine and remain isolated.
Sunday's launch follows by just a few months SpaceX's two-pilot test flight. It kicks off what NASA hopes will be a long series of crew rotations between the U.S. and the space station, after years of delay. More people means more science research at the orbiting lab, according to officials.
Cheers and applause erupted at SpaceX Mission Control in Hawthorne, California, after the capsule reached orbit and the first-stage booster landed on a floating platform in the Atlantic. Musk tweeted a single red heart.
At Kennedy, he was replaced by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. She wouldn't give Musk's whereabouts, but said he was "tied in very closely to the launch."
"I have a series of texts to prove it," Shotwell told reporters.
The flight to the space station — 27 1/2 hours door to door — should be entirely automated, although the crew can take control if needed. SpaceX had to deal with pressure pump spikes once the capsule reached orbit, but quickly resolved the issue.
With COVID-19 still surging, NASA continued the safety precautions put in place for SpaceX's crew launch in May. The astronauts went into quarantine with their families in October. All launch personnel wore masks, and the number of guests at Kennedy was limited. Even the two astronauts on the first SpaceX crew flight stayed behind at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Vice President Mike Pence, chairman of the National Space Council, joined NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to watch the launch.
"I didn't start breathing until about a minute after it took off," Pence said during a stop at SpaceX Launch Control to congratulate the workers.
Outside the space center gates, spectators crowded into nearby beaches and towns. NASA worried a weekend liftoff — coupled with a dramatic nighttime launch — could lead to a superspreader event. They urged the crowds to wear masks and maintain safe distances. Similar pleas for SpaceX's first crew launch on May 30 went unheeded.
"In such a crazy year, we have finally some great news," said Sophia Giallanza, who came from Miami with her husband and son to see their first launch. "So it's really wonderful."
The three-men, one-woman crew led by Hopkins, an Air Force colonel, named their capsule Resilience in a nod not only to the pandemic, but also racial injustice and contentious politics. It's about as diverse as space crews come, including physicist Shannon Walker, Navy Cmdr. Victor Glover, the first Black astronaut on a long-term space station mission, and Japan's Soichi Noguchi, who became the first person in almost 40 years to launch on three types of spacecraft.
They rode out to the launch pad in Teslas — another Musk company — after exchanging high-fives and hand embraces with their children and spouses, who huddled at the open car windows.
Besides its sleek design and high-tech features, the Dragon capsule is quite spacious — it can carry up to seven people. Previous space capsules have launched with no more than three. The extra room in this newest capsule was used for science experiments and supplies.
The four astronauts will be joining two Russians and one American who flew to the space station last month from Kazakhstan. The orbiting outpost soared over the launch site a mere half-minute before liftoff.
The first-stage booster is expected to be recycled by SpaceX for the next crew launch. That's currently targeted for the end of March, which would set up the newly launched astronauts for a return to Earth in April.
In the next 15 months, SpaceX should be flying roughly seven Dragon missions for NASA, both crew and cargo, Shotwell said.
While Bridenstine noted it was a beautiful launch, he stressed: "This is a six-month mission and it's the first of many."
"When you're flying into space, there's always risk and we will always be diligent," he added.
SpaceX and NASA wanted the booster recovered so badly that they delayed the launch attempt by a day, to give the floating platform time to reach its position in the Atlantic over the weekend following rough seas.
Boeing, NASA's other contracted crew transporter, is trailing by a year. A repeat of last December's software-plagued test flight without a crew is off until sometime early next year, with the first astronaut flight of the Starliner capsule not expected before summer.
NASA turned to private companies to haul cargo and crew to the space station, after the shuttle fleet retired in 2011. SpaceX qualified for both. With Kennedy back in astronaut-launching action, NASA can stop buying seats on Russian Soyuz rockets. The last one cost $90 million.
The commander of SpaceX's first crew, Doug Hurley, noted it's not just about saving money or easing the training burdens for crews.
"Bottom line: I think it's just better for us to be flying from the United States if we can do that," he told The Associated Press last week.