On Sunday, Nov. 15, Elon Musk’s aerospace manufacturer and space transportation service Space Exploration Technologies Corp. – better known as SpaceX – launched four astronauts on a flight to the International Space Station (ISS).
This is the first flight for NASA astronauts sponsored by a private company. After NASA handed over the design, development and testing of new spacecraft to the private sector, SpaceX was able to develop the “Crew Dragon” capsule under the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program.
The Falcon 9 rocket took off from the Kennedy Space Center on Sunday evening, carrying a crew of four – three astronauts from America and one from Japan. They are the second crew to be launched by SpaceX overall, following a test mission in May that transported astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken – two test pilots – to the space station.
In addition, the Falcon 9 rocket carried SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft “Resilience,” named as such due to the many troubles of 2020 – primarily, the coronavirus pandemic.
“Resilience rises; not even gravity contains humanity when we explore as one for all,” NASA public affairs officer Marie Lewis said.
Unfortunately, Musk – SpaceX’s founder and chief executive – was not allowed to be present at the launch, as he had “most likely” contracted COVID-19, according to a post on his Twitter account. At the Kennedy Space Center, NASA requires any individual who has tested positive for coronavirus to remain in quarantine and refrain from attending in-person events.
The astronauts – Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi – docked with the ISS around 11 p.m. EST on Monday, Nov. 16. In total, the crew spent 27 hours in orbit.
The launch was originally planned for Saturday, Nov. 14, which would have allowed the crew to reach ISS in only eight hours. These plans had to be altered due to bad weather brought about by Hurricane Eta.
Throughout their six-month stay at the ISS, the crew will conduct research into how microgravity affects human heart tissue, among other experiments. Additionally, they will attempt to grow radishes in space to determine how food can be grown on deep-space exploration endeavors.
With this launch, ISS will have seven astronauts on staff to run experiments and keep the station maintained. When the Space Shuttle program was retired by the U.S. government in 2011, NASA had to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to ISS, causing the station to remain understaffed for many years. While 13 astronauts were on board in 2009, that number has dropped to just three recently.
Because SpaceX owns the spacecraft that NASA had handed over to them, they will also be able to use these vehicles to fly space tourists and private researchers who can afford the company’s $50 million ticket going forward. Even throughout this time, NASA will be able to continue contracting SpaceX’s services for additional expeditions.