By MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace Writer
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA on Wednesday, less than two days after completing a flight chartered by millionaires.
It’s NASA’s first crew of equal numbers of men and women, including the first black woman to complete a long-duration spaceflight, Jessica Watkins.
“This is one of the most diverse crews, I think, that we’ve had in a very, very long time,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA space operations mission chief, on the eve of launch.
The astronauts were scheduled to arrive at the space station Wednesday evening, 16 hours after their predawn liftoff from Kennedy Space Center. They will spend five months in the orbital laboratory.
SpaceX has now launched five NASA crew and two private trips in just under two years. Elon Musk’s company is having a particularly busy week: it just finished flying three businessmen to and from the space station as NASA’s first private guests.
A week after the arrival of the new crew, the three Americans and Germans they replace will return to Earth in their own SpaceX capsule. Three Russians also live at the space station.
SpaceX and NASA officials stressed they were taking it one step at a time to ensure safety. The private mission that ended on Monday encountered no major problems, they said, although high winds delayed splashing by a week.
SpaceX Launch Control wished the astronauts and Godspeed good luck moments before the Falcon rocket lifted off with the capsule, named Freedom by its crew.
“Our heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you who made this possible. Now let Falcon roar and Freedom ring,” NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, the commander, said over the radio. Minutes later, their recycled propellant had landed on an ocean platform and their capsule was in a safe orbit around Earth “It was a great ride,” he said.
SpaceX capsules are fully automated – which opens the doors to space for a wider customer base – and they are designed to fit a wider range of body sizes. At the same time, NASA and the European Space Agency have pushed for more female astronauts.
While two black women visited the space station during the shuttle era, neither moved there for an extended stay. Watkins, a geologist who is on NASA’s shortlist for a moon landing mission in the coming years, sees her mission as “a milestone, I think, both for the agency and for the country.”
She credits the support of her family and mentors – including Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space in 1992 – for “finally being able to live my dream”.
Another geologist also encouraged Watkins: Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17, who walked on the moon in 1972. She invited the retired astronaut to the launch, along with his wife. “We sort of consider ourselves Team Jessica,” he said with a laugh.
“Those of us who’ve flown the Saturn V into space are a little jaded about small rockets,” Schmitt said after SpaceX liftoff. “But still, it was really something and on board was a geologist…keep her in good stead to be part of one of the Artemis crews going to the moon.”
Like Watkins, NASA astronaut and test pilot Bob Hines is making his first spaceflight. This is the second visit by the European Space Agency’s only female astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, a former Italian Air Force fighter pilot, and Lindgren, a doctor.
The just-completed private flight was NASA’s first dive into space tourism after years of opposition. The space agency said the three people who paid $55 million each to visit the space station mixed together while doing experiments and educational activities. They were accompanied by a former NASA astronaut employed by Houston-based Axiom Space, who organized the flight.
“The International Space Station is not a vacation spot. It’s not an amusement park. It’s an international lab, and they absolutely understood and adhered to that goal,” said NASA Flight Director Zeb Scoville.
NASA also hired Boeing to transport astronauts after it retired the shuttles. The company will try again next month to bring an empty crew capsule to the space station, after software and other problems fouled a test flight in 2019 and prevented a redesign last summer.
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