ORLANDO, Fla. — SpaceX waited a day later than planned but sent up the next quartet of astronauts headed to the International Space Station during an overnight launch from Kennedy Space Center early Saturday.
A Falcon 9 rocket topped with the Crew Dragon Endurance on the Crew-7 mission lit up the Space Coast sky at 3:27 a.m., blasting off from KSC’s Launch Pad 39-A. An attempt on Friday was scrubbed before the crew made it to the launch pad to ensure safe margins for concerns related to the life support system, according to a statement from NASA.
“We know the importance of flying crew and the trust the crew puts in us,” said SpaceX’s William Gerstenmaier during the flight readiness review. “We don’t treat them like other missions. They’re special for us and we make sure we’re really ready to go and the hardware is really ready to go.”
The first-stage booster for the mission flew for the first time and made a successful recovery landing at nearby Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, bringing with it the double sonic boom heard along the Space Coast and other parts of central Florida.
Along for the ride are NASA astronaut and mission commander Jasmin Moghbeli, ESA astronaut and pilot Andreas Mogensen, mission specialist JAXA astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, and mission specialist Roscosmos cosmonaut Konstantin Borisov.
“SpaceX, thanks for the ride. It was awesome,” Moghbeli said. “We’d like to thank the multitude of people that have led us to this unique moment. We may have four crew members on board from four different nations — Denmark, Japan, Russia and USA — but we are a united team with a common mission and we hope … to serve our beautiful home planet and those on it.”
It’s the first time the program has flown with astronauts from four different agencies.
They began gearing up before midnight about four hours before the planned liftoff followed by a fanfare walkout to say their goodbyes to family members. They hopped in the fleet of Teslas with their custom license plates that read “BYEEEEE” driving them to the launch pad to climb aboard the spacecraft. Just before 1 a.m. all four had taken their seats ahead of hatch closure.
The secretive zero-G indicator seen floating around the cabin during the launch broadcast turned out to be a stuffed three-toed sloth, chosen by Mogensen as it’s one of his children’s favorite animals that they saw during a vacation to Costa Rica.
They arrived at KSC this past Sunday to prep for the flight, which is the seventh rotational mission for SpaceX under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Crew-7 will perform about 300 experiments while they’re docked for six months with 81 new investigations onboard, said NASA International Space Station program manager Joel Montalbano.
The Crew Dragon Endurance, which is flying for the third time, is set to arrive at the ISS at about 8 a.m. Sunday, parking next to its sister capsule Crew Dragon Endeavour.
That’s the ride home for Crew-6, who have been orbiting the Earth on the ISS since their arrival in March. The station’s population will increase to 11 until the Crew-6 departure, expected in about five days for a splashdown off the coast of Florida.
“That’s enough time for a good handover between the two crews and such that the Crew-7 guys are ready to rock ‘n’ roll,” Montalbano said.
For now Crew-7 will become part of the ISS Expedition 69 expected to stay on board for about 190 days. Mogensen will then take command of the station in September after the arrival of another three new crew members who will fly up on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to relieve three crew members, including NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, who have been aboard the ISS for nearly a year.
“The space station is as busy as ever as we approach our 23rd year of continuous human presence with our international partners,” said Ken Bowersox, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
The ISS has had a continuous crew since November 2000 with NASA relying on the Space Shuttle Program until its retirement in 2011. It then was solely serviced by Russian Soyuz launches until SpaceX’s Crew Dragon program sent up the first two astronauts from KSC in May 2020 on the Demo-2 mission.
SpaceX and Boeing won the contract to take over U.S.-based launches to the ISS, but Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner has faced a series of delays, and is now targeting no earlier than March 2024 for its first crewed flight to the ISS.
NASA had originally planned for SpaceX and Boeing to share taxi service duties to the station with each flying just one rotational mission each per year, but with Boeing’s delays, SpaceX continues to be the workhorse. Crew Dragon has also flown private missions including two Axiom Space flights to the ISS and an orbital mission called Inspiration4 with billionaire Jared Isaacman.
The Crew-7 astronauts make it 42 humans Crew Dragon has sent to space across 11 missions in just over three years with Crew-8, another Axiom Space flight and another Isaacman-led orbital flight called Polaris Dawn coming up.
It’s the 43rd launch from the Space Coast so far this year with all but two coming from SpaceX. It’s the third crewed launch this year as well.
“I think it’s easy to think that this is easy,” Gerstenmaier said. “This business is not easy. From the outside, it may look like we’re flying a lot of flights and they’re all trouble-free. They’re not all trouble-free. They are not easy. Every time we fly, we learn something.”