NASA, SpaceX launch astronauts to space station from Kennedy Space Center, first time using recycled rocket

Emre Kelly
Florida Today

CAPE CANAVERAL — Four astronauts strapped into a Crew Dragon capsule vaulted off their pad at Kennedy Space Center early Friday, kicking off NASA and SpaceX's second full-duration mission to the International Space Station.

Astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Akihiko Hoshide and Thomas Pesquet took flight at 5:49 a.m. on Crew-2, a NASA-purchased mission part of the human spaceflight-focused Commercial Crew Program. The team will spend about a day in the capsule named Endeavour before docking with the orbiting outpost at 5:10 a.m. Saturday.

Crew-2 marked the first time NASA agreed to launch astronauts on a recycled Falcon 9 rocket; Crew Dragon Endeavour was re-flown, too.

"Our crew is flying astronauts from NASA, ESA, and JAXA, which hasn't happened in over 20 years," mission commander Kimbrough said just before liftoff, referring to the European and Japanese space agencies. "We're excited to represent our nations, agencies, and all of humanity. Off the Earth and for the Earth, Endeavour is ready to go."

The pre-dawn liftoff was perfectly timed for spectators: just as Falcon 9 arced over the Atlantic Ocean, exhaust plumes from its nine Merlin engines were illuminated by the sun's rays just over the horizon, creating what's known as a "jellyfish effect." It lasted until well over 10 minutes after liftoff.

The Falcon 9 rocket was previously flown. Though SpaceX anticipates flying boosters 10-plus times with minor work between satellite launches, a maximum of five are expected for crewed missions due to more stringent safety requirements.

Crew Dragon Endeavour first flew astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the space statioin May 2020 on Demo-2, the first crewed flight since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. It just so happens that Behnken is McArthur's husband, meaning Endeavour so far has been entrusted with a wife-and-husband duo over two separate missions.

Kimbrough and McArthur are NASA astronauts; Hoshide is representing the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency; and Pesquet is the European Space Agency's first to fly on Crew Dragon. All are spaceflight veterans.

All four will spend about six months on the ISS before their return in the October timeframe. Crews are typically responsible for station maintenance, conducting science experiments, and staying in shape to combat microgravity's effects on the body, to name a few.

Meet NASA and SpaceX's Crew-2 mission astronauts: Akihiko Hoshide | Thomas Pesquet | Megan McArthur | Shane Kimbrough

Once aboard the ISS, Crew-2 will boost the station's complement to 11 – not quite a record, but close. As many as 13 people briefly lived aboard the station during the space shuttle program.

Friday's launch came during a week when U.S.–Russia relations, at least in the confines of spaceflight, seemed to take an unanticipated turn: Roscosmos space agency director Dmitry Rogozin said his country might leave the ISS after 2025 to pursue its own station.

Speaking to Russian news agency Interfax, Rogozin said Rosocosmos is considering exiting the more than 20-year partnership with NASA as its station segment ages.

"We will simply hand over the responsibility for our segment to the partners," Rogozin said. "Or we will do the work necessary for operating the station on the commercial basis, rather than at the expense of the budget,"

NASA has not yet commented on specific discussions, but chief of human spaceflight Kathy Lueders took to Twitter and said "extension discussions and decisions are a normal part of operations, and we will have those over the coming year."

The previous team of astronauts that launched from KSC in November, meanwhile, are slated to re-enter their Crew Dragon capsule and return to Earth early on April 28. Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi will wrap up their Crew-1 mission with a splashdown off the coast of Florida at 12:40 p.m. that day.

The next crewed mission for SpaceX, Crew-3, is currently slated for no earlier than October. It will include NASA's Raja Chari and Tom Marshburn along with ESA's Matthias Maurer.

Florida's next launch is also slated for April 28. Yet another Falcon 9 rocket will boost SpaceX's 25th batch of Starlink internet satellites to low-Earth orbit, this time from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station's Launch Complex 40. Liftoff is set for a not-yet-released time between 10:30 p.m. and 1 a.m. on the following day.

Contact Emre Kelly on Twitter at @EmreKelly.