SpaceX launches Crew-4 to space station in record year

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SpaceX launched another crew of astronauts to the International Space Station early Wednesday, its 16th launch since the start of the year as the company launches rockets into orbit at a rate unmatched in the history of American space exploration .

Wednesday’s launch carried three American astronauts and one Italian. The crew lifted off on a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center at 3:52 a.m. Eastern Time for what is expected to be a six-month stay in the orbiting lab. And it came less than two days after the conclusion of the first mission to the station staffed entirely by private citizens.

The majority of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launches this year have carried the company’s Starlink satellites, which are used to beam the internet to ground stations. SpaceX has been working feverishly to set up its constellation of satellites, which currently numbers more than 2,000.

But taken with its launches of people to the space station and the delivery of cargo there, SpaceX’s performance underscores the promise of commercial spaceflight and the success of Elon Musk’s once-radical idea of ​​reusing boosters. who have flown before to reduce space expenses. businesses.

“We are truly in the golden age of space exploration,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at a pre-flight press conference. He noted how Cape Canaveral and the Florida Space Coast, which were moribund after the space shuttle was retired in 2011, have come back to life, as a number of companies develop new rockets and spacecraft.

“Think of how Cape Town has transformed,” he said. “Think of all those abandoned launch pads out there on the Cape and how they’re coming back to life.”

The booster that lifted off on Wednesday was making its fourth flight, the first time astronauts had been carried into space on a rocket that had flown so many times. The flight, known as Crew-4, is SpaceX’s fourth operational mission under NASA’s Commercial Crew program. The three NASA astronauts on board the spacecraft, nicknamed “Freedom”, were Kjell Lindgren, the mission commander, Robert Hines and Jessica Watkins, who are making their first trips to space, and Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian astronaut of the European Space Agency. Watkins would become the first black woman to live long in space.

The crew is expected to dock at the station at 8:15 p.m. Eastern Time Wednesday.

Minutes before liftoff, Lindgren told mission control, “Let Falcon roar and freedom ring.” Once in orbit, he said the crew “felt great and looked forward to seeing the view”.

Instead of discarding its rockets after flight, as had been the practice in space exploration for decades, SpaceX is returning the first stage to a ship at sea or a landing pad on land, so it can be refurbished and reused. The booster made a successful landing on the ship on Wednesday, marking SpaceX’s 116th booster landing.

So far, the company has piloted two boosters up to 12 times. While NASA and Pentagon officials had once been skeptical of the reliability and performance of boosters that had endured the harshness of spaceflight, that mindset has changed dramatically in recent years.

Earlier this month, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, wrote on Twitter that while he was “always enthusiastic about using @SpaceX boosters in flight on principle and also the cost of the mission, I changed my mind about them slightly: I now PREFER previously used boosters rather than totally new boosters for most science apps. #FlyAndLearn.

The National Reconnaissance Office also cleared SpaceX for the first time to use a booster that was used for a mission earlier this year.

In the first quarter of this year, SpaceX launched 502 spacecraft, far more than any other vendor, and far surpassing China’s space agency, which launched 38 during that time, according to Bryce Space and Technology, a consulting firm. It also launched more than 250,000 pounds of mass into orbit, according to the firm, far more than even Russia, which launched about 42,000 pounds.

The rest of the year promises to be just as busy. Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, said the company aim for 60 launches This year. While the company may not reach that milestone, it has a few major missions planned, including another crewed launch for NASA in September. Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur, also hopes to fly another private mission into orbit by the end of the year.

Last year, he and a crew of three other private citizens spent three days in orbit in SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft on a mission dubbed Inspiration4.

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