SpaceX launches rocket with 600th space traveller on board

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After several delays, Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station.

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A SpaceX rocket has carried four astronauts into orbit, including the 600th person to reach space in 60 years.

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The oft-delayed flight, which launched on Wednesday night, comes just two days after SpaceX brought four other astronauts home from the International Space Station (ISS). They should have been there to welcome newcomers, but NASA and Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX decided to change the order based on Monday’s ideal recovery weather in the Gulf of Mexico and withdrew.

The spacecraft, called Endurance, will dock with the ISS at 7:10 p.m. Thursday (00:10 GMT Friday).

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“It was a great ride that we had imagined,” mission commander Raja Chari said shortly after the spacecraft reached orbit.

NASA chief Bill Nelson said on Twitter that he had attended the launch.

“We are witnessing the power of American ingenuity right before our eyes,” he wrote after the rocket took off, lauding the NASA-SpaceX partnership.

“Godspeed, Crew-3 – I can’t wait to see all that you accomplish!”

NASA associate administrator and former astronaut Bob Cabana described the launch as “fantastic.”

“I think it’s an amazing time for America’s space program. We’re definitely at an inflection point,” he said.

The launch was as fascinating to spectators at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as well as on the East Coast, as the Falcon rocket was turning night into day through clouds en route to space.

According to NASA, Germany’s Matthias Maurer claimed the 600th spot based on his mission assignment. He and three of his NASA colleagues will arrive at the space station more than a week late.

One of the astronauts – NASA is not saying which – was incarcerated last week with an undisclosed medical issue. According to NASA, the crew member has fully recovered. Officials would not say whether it was illness or injury but noted that it was not COVID-19.

European Space Agency (ESA) German astronaut Matthias Maurer waves as he departs from the crew quarters for launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket [Joe Skipper/Reuters]

Bad weather also contributed to the delay in his flight. Chari said trying to launch on Halloween left him with “a trick rather than a treat.” It was also drizzling on Wednesday night when the four astronauts said goodbye to their families for six months – all cruising under umbrellas – but it had cleared up by launch.

Enjoy your vacation among the stars. We’ll be waving as you take off,” SpaceX senior launch engineer Mark Soltis radioed to the crew.

The list of 600 astronauts ranges from those who barely scratched in space—like actor William Shatner last month—to US and Russian astronauts who have spent a year or more in orbit. A jump in the number of space tourists this year helped push that number past the 600 mark.

An average of 10 people per year since the pioneering flight of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961, Maurer said.

“But I think in just a few years, we’ll see that rapid growth because we’re now entering the era of commercial spaceflight,” he said after arriving at Kennedy Space Center two weeks ago.

The crewed launch marked SpaceX’s fourth for NASA and the company’s fifth overall passenger flight — including a September charter flight for four that left the space station. The Dragon capsule’s toilet leaked during their three days in orbit, necessitating a quick redesign of the flushing system in the latest capsule.

An incompletely functioning parachute during Monday’s landing had SpaceX engineers poring over data before proceeding for Wednesday’s launch. While one of the four chutes opened late by more than a minute, a problem was observed in testing and within safety limits, but was still being investigated, officials said.

As of Wednesday, Musk’s company has launched 18 people in 18 months.

“Human spaceflight was the driving force behind our founding, so it’s incredibly meaningful to the entire team,” said SpaceX manager Sarah Walker.

The European Space Agency’s Mauer is one of three newcomers to the crew. The 51-year-old was a finalist when he first applied to be an astronaut. Excited, he quit his research job at a medical company and joined the space agency as an engineer, and cut astronauts in 2015.

Chari, 44, is an Air Force colonel and the first astronaut to lead a NASA orbiting mission in decades. A test pilot from Cedar Falls, Iowa, Chari accumulated more than 2,500 hours in fighter jets, including combat missions in Iraq.

Also there is Dr. Thomas Marshburn, 61, who will be the oldest person to live and spacewalk on the space station. Born in Statesville, North Carolina, he pursued a career in emergency medicine, then joined NASA in 1994 as a flight surgeon. This is his third visit to the space station.

Kayla Barron, 34, a Navy lieutenant commander from Richland, Washington, is also on board. She was the first woman to serve as a submarine warfare officer. Added to flight in May, he is the 601st person in space.

During his station stay, he will welcome two groups of tourists. A Russian film crew recently spent two weeks at the station to make a film.

The new crew will join three station residents – two Russians and Mark Vande Hei of NASA, who celebrated his 55th birthday on Wednesday.

“NASA and @SpaceX are lighting a big candle in the sky for you tonight,” NASA tweeted ahead of launch.

That candle – the first stage booster – landed upright on an ocean floor.

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