Four astronauts from three countries are suited up and strapped into their SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which is perched atop one of SpaceX’s 200-foot-tall Falcon 9 rockets at a launch pad in Florida.
The rocket and spacecraft are scheduled to launch at 5.49 a.m. ET this morning. Elon Musk’s space business will be making only its third crewed flight, and the first to use a previously flown rocket booster and spacecraft.
The same rocket booster that powered SpaceX’s Crew-1 mission in November, as well as the same spacecraft, called “Endeavour,” that was used on the historic Demo-2 mission last May, will be used on Friday’s SpaceX launch. Reusability has long been a pillar of SpaceX’s business strategy, with the hope of lowering the cost of spaceflight by recovering and refurbishing hardware. Though the company has reused boosters and spacecraft for satellite and cargo launches thousands of times, this will be the first time it will do so for a crewed flight.
NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur will be joined by European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide. After their Crew Dragon capsule docks early Saturday morning, they’ll spend six months aboard the International Space Station. After spending Thursday at the beach and getting some rest, the crew arrived at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) shortly after midnight to suit up. They were then whisked up the launch tower and accessed the spacecraft via aeri before enjoying hand-curated playlists — one of which included songs by Ozzy Osbourne, Foo Fighters, and Metallica — inside the Teslas that drove them to the launch pad before they were whisked up the launch tower, and accessed the spacecraft via aerial walkway.
A team of SpaceX helpers strapped the astronauts into the capsule and ran through a series of communications and safety checks for hours. During the checks, the crew held themselves amused by playing rounds of rock-paper-scissors, a superstitious practice observed by all astronauts who launch from KSC prior to takeoff.
They will launch at 5.49 p.m., unless there is a weather or technical delay, and the Falcon 9 rocket will propel the spacecraft to a speed of more than 17,000 miles per hour before separating.
SpaceX plans to land the first-stage rocket booter on a seagoing platform so it can be reused on a future flight. The Crew Dragon capsule will remain in orbit for another day, with the crew spending nearly a full day onboard as it slowly approaches the two-decade-old International Space Station, which orbits about 250 miles above earth.
Around 5.10 a.m. ET on Saturday, the Crew Dragon is expected to dock with the ISS.
Kimbrough, McArthur, Pesquet, and Hoshide would join the station’s existing seven astronauts, four of whom arrived in November on a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. This will increase the total number of people working on the space station to 11, making it one of the biggest crews the station has ever had. When four more astronauts hitch a ride home from the station on April 28, the number will rapidly drop to seven.
After the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in 2011, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft became the only choice for getting astronauts to and from the ISS, NASA has spent more than a decade working to increase staffing aboard the 21-year-old space station. For those journeys, the US had been paying Russia as much as $90 million per seat.
For years, SpaceX operated under a $2.6 billion fixed-price contract to produce the Crew Dragon spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which turned over the task of designing and testing a crew-worthy spacecraft to the private sector for the first time in space agency history. Last May, SpaceX made history by launching the first crewed Crew Dragon flight, Demo-2, to the International Space Station, carrying NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken for a four-month stay. In November, SpaceX launched its second crewed flight.
According to NASA, one of the primary goals of the astronauts’ mission will be to investigate “tissue chips,” which are “tiny models of human organs containing different cell types that act almost the same as they do in the body” and which the space agency hopes will aid in the production of drugs and vaccines. This thesis will build on years of research on biological and other scientific phenomena aboard the International Space Station, where the microgravity atmosphere allows scientists to gain a greater understanding of how everything functions.
McArthur is a veteran of the Space Shuttle and married to Behnken, who co-piloted the landmark Demo-2 flight in May. McArthur told reporters over the weekend that working alongside SpaceX during the Crew Dragon development phase allowed her to gain “years of experience” with the vehicle.
“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.
NASA’s Kimbrough, a former Army colonel and a veteran of two previous ISS missions, will accompany McArthur. Their crewmates, Japan’s Hoshide and France’s Pesquet, have both flown in space before.
Pesquet expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to travel onboard the refurbished rocket booster that propels the capsule into space. He and his crew mates were able to “write our names” on the side of the vehicle due to the weathered hardware already coated in soot from previous flights.
“I don’t know if [the writing] is gonna stick, but I’ve found it really cool,” he said.