SpaceX launches 4 astronauts for NASA, including first black woman to make long-term space flight

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) — SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA on Wednesday, less than two days after the completion of the millionaire-chartered flight.

This is the first NASA crew to be made up of equal numbers of men and women, including the first black woman to make a long-term space flight, Jessica Watkins.

“I think this is one of the most diversified crews we’ve had in a very, very long time,” said NASA Mission Director for Space Operations Kathy Lueders.

The astronauts were due to arrive at the space station on Wednesday evening, 16 hours after a pre-dawn takeoff from the Kennedy Space Center thrilled onlookers.

“Everyone who saw it understood what a beautiful launch it was,” Lueders told reporters. After an express flight comparable to traveling from New York to Singapore, the crew moves for five months.

SpaceX has now launched five NASA crews and two private flights in less than two years. Elon Musk’s company is having a particularly busy few weeks, having just finished ferrying three businessmen to and from the space station as NASA’s first private guests.

A week after the arrival of the new crew, the three Americans and the Germans they replace will return to Earth in their own SpaceX capsule. Three Russians also live on the space station.

SpaceX and NASA officials stressed that they are taking steps to ensure safety. The private mission, which ended on Monday, did not encounter any major problems, they said, although strong winds delayed splashdown by a week.

SpaceX’s launch control wished the astronauts good luck and just moments before the Falcon rocket lifted off with the capsule the crew named Freedom.

“We sincerely thank each and every one of you who made this possible. Now let the Falcon roar and the Liberty ring,” NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, commander, radioed. A few minutes later, their redesigned booster landed on the ocean platform, and their capsule entered Earth orbit safely. “It was a great trip,” he said.

SpaceX capsules are fully automated, opening up the space gate to a wider clientele, and they are designed to fit a wider range of body sizes. At the same time, NASA and the European Space Agency are pushing for more female astronauts.

Although two black women visited the space station during the shuttle era, neither of them moved for long periods of time. Watkins, a geologist who will be on NASA’s shortlist for a moon landing in the coming years, sees her mission as “a milestone, I think, both for the agency and for the country.”

She credits her supportive family and mentors, including Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space in 1992, for “ultimately being able to make her dream come true.”

Watkins was also encouraged by another geologist: Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17, who walked on the Moon in 1972. She invited a retired astronaut to launch with his wife. “We kind of think of ourselves as Jessica’s team,” he said with a chuckle.

“Those of us who flew into space on the Saturn V got a little tired of small rockets,” Schmitt said after the SpaceX launch. “But still, it really was something, and there was a geologist on board… I hope it will serve her well for being part of one of the Artemis teams that go to the moon.”

Like Watkins, NASA astronaut and test pilot Bob Hines is making his first space flight. This is the second visit by Lindgren, a doctor and the only female European Space Agency astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, a former fighter pilot in the Italian Air Force.

Cristoforetti turned 45 on Tuesday, “so she’s really celebrating and very happy, smiling big in the capsule,” said Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency. “She’s truly a role model and she does an incredibly amazing job doing just that.”

The just-completed private flight was NASA’s first foray into space tourism after a years-long standoff. The space agency said the three people, who paid $55 million each to visit the space station, mingled while doing experiments and outreach. They were accompanied by a former NASA astronaut hired by Axiom Space, a Houston-based company that organized the flight.

“The International Space Station is not a place to rest. This is not an amusement park. This is an international laboratory and they fully understood and respected that goal,” said NASA Flight Director Zeb Scoville.

NASA also hired Boeing to transport astronauts after the shuttles were decommissioned. The company will make another attempt next month to get an empty crew capsule to the space station after software and other problems thwarted a 2019 test flight and prevented a repeat last summer.

© 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


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