NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur will be joined by French astronaut Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency, and Akihiko Hoshide from Japan. They're due to spend six months aboard the International Space Station after their Crew Dragon capsule docks early Saturday morning.
The Crew Dragon capsule, named "Endeavour," previously carried NASA's Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the space station in May 2020. Endeavour soared into space atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that was also charred with soot from a previous mission it flew in November 2020. SpaceX has long made reusability a cornerstone of its business plan, hoping that recovering and refurbishing hardware will drive down the cost of spaceflight. Though the company has re-flown boosters and spacecraft dozens of times on satellite and cargo launches over the past several years, this will mark the first time the company will reuse hardware for a crewed mission.
The astronauts spent hours being strapped into the capsule by a team of SpaceX helpers, and running through a series of communications and safety checks. The crew briefly kept themselves entertained during the checks by playing rounds of rock-paper-scissors, a superstitious tradition that all astronauts that launch out of KSC observe before flight.
Then, just before 6 am ET, the Falcon 9 rocket fired to life and propelled the spacecraft to more than 17,000 miles per hour before separating from the Crew Dragon spacecraft.
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SpaceX also landed the first-stage rocket booter on a seafaring platform so that it can be used yet again on a later mission.
The Crew Dragon, meanwhile, is now hurtling through space. It'll remain freeflying through orbit as it gradually maneuvers closer to the ISS, which orbits about 250 miles above ground. It's slated to dock with the ISS around 5 am ET Saturday.
Kimbrough, McArthur, Pesquet, and Hoshide will join seven astronauts already on board the station, four of whom arrived on a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in November. That will bring the space station's total staff to 11 — one of the largest crews the ISS has ever hosted. But that number will quickly drop back down to seven when four other astronauts hitch a ride home from the station on April 28.
NASA has spent more than a decade working to boost staffing aboard the 21-year-old space station after the retirement of its Space Shuttle program in 2011 left Russia's Soyuz spacecraft as the only option for getting astronauts to and from the ISS. The United States had been paying Russia as much as $90 million per seat for those trips.
For years, SpaceX worked under a $2.6 billion fixed-price contract to develop its Crew Dragon spacecraft under NASA's Commercial Crew program, which for the first time in space agency history handed over the task of building and testing a crew-worthy spacecraft to the private sector. SpaceX made history last May with the first crewed launch of a Crew Dragon on a mission called Demo-2, which carried NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken to the ISS for a four-month stay. A second crewed SpaceX mission took off in November.
(Boeing (BA) is working under a similar contract to develop its own capsule for the program, called Starliner, though it is still in the testing phase.)
McArthur is a Space Shuttle veteran and is married to Behnken, who co-piloted the historic Demo-2 mission last May. McArthur told reporters over the weekend that she was able to get "years of experience" with the Crew Dragon vehicle as Behnken worked alongside SpaceX during the Crew Dragon development process.
"I had several years, really, of learning from him along the way," McArthur, who will pilot the Crew-2 mission and holds a doctorate in oceanography, said.
McArthur will be joined by NASA's Kimbrough, a retired Army colonel and a veteran of two previous ISS missions. Their crewmates, Japan's Hoshide and France's Pesquet, both have prior spaceflight experience as well.
Pesquet said he appreciated the chance to fly aboard the refurbished rocket booster that helps lift the capsule into the void. The weathered hardware still covered in soot from their prior flights, allowed him and his crew mates to "draw our initials" on the side of the vehicle.
"I don't know if [the writing] is gonna stick, but I've found it really cool," he said.
Image Source: Getty Images