Four astronauts from three nations have arrived at the International Space Station in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, after a night launch that lit up the skies over Florida with UFO-like displays.
The light show came courtesy of the timing for liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, on April 23 at 5:49 a.m. ET — which was just right for the dawn’s early glare to illuminate clouds of fuel and exhaust left behind by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket as it ascended and went through stage separation.
In a tweet, NASA said the skies “lit up like a sunrise.” Other observers said the launch left an impression that was out of this world:
apparently this is spacex ,, i realy thought it was a ufo pic.twitter.com/ik7JsVkpgM
— liz⁷ (@lisknj) April 23, 2021
The objective of the launch wasn’t to put on a fireworks display, but to get the next contingent of crew members to the space station for a six-month tour of duty. NASA commander Shane Kimbrough and pilot Megan McArthur joined Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet in the Dragon’s cabin for the flight. Pesquet is the first representative of the European Space Agency to fly on a SpaceX Crew Dragon.
“What a ride!! Trips up to space never get old,” Kimbrough, a veteran of two previous spaceflights, tweeted after reaching orbit. “Thanks to the @NASA and @SpaceX teams for ensuring our safety during launch. Looking forward to greeting my crewmates on @Space_Station tomorrow morning!”
The quartet arrived at the station today at 5:08 a.m. ET (2:08 a.m. PT), and were greeted with hugs by a welcoming committee consisting of seven spacefliers from the U.S., Russia and Japan.
“We got here safely, and now it’s time to work here onboard the International Space Station,” Hoshide said over a video link. “We look forward to working with everyone around the world.”
— NASA (@NASA) April 24, 2021
For a few days, the station will be staffed by a crew of 11 — which is the biggest crowd on the orbital outpost since NASA retired its space shuttles in 2011. This is also the first time since the Gemini program of the 1960s that two U.S.-built, crew-capable space transport ships have been in orbit at the same time.
Both of those spaceships are Crew Dragons: The newly launched capsule has been christened Endeavour, in honor of the last space shuttle to be built. The other Dragon, known as Resilience, has been docked to the station since November. Resilience is due to bring a different quartet of astronauts back to Earth next week.
This marks the third trip made to the space station by a Crew Dragon, and the first crewed launch that made use of a previously flown (or, as SpaceX, prefers to put it, “flight-proven”) Dragon and Falcon 9 first-stage booster.
Last May, Dragon Endeavour was used for SpaceX’s first-ever crewed flight — a history-making tour of duty that brought NASA’s Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the station and back. McArthur, Behnken’s wife, took over her husband’s old seat as Endeavour’s pilot.
“That is kind of a fun thing that we can share,” McArthur said during a pre-flight briefing. “I can tease him and say, ‘Hey, can you hand over the keys? I’m ready now to go.’ ”
The rocket booster for the current misssion had also been used before, for November’s Crew Dragon launch. It flew itself back to a landing on a seagoing drone ship, just as it did months ago, and could end up being employed for yet another space mission after refurbishment.
Here’s a recap of the launch, plus a selection of out-of-this-world imagery from the Falcon 9 light show:
— NASA (@NASA) April 23, 2021
The pre-dawn sky first seemed serene yesterday morning over Indian Harbor Beach in Florida, USA. But then it lit up with a rocket launch.This time lapse by Eric Holland compressing 12-minutes into 8-seconds — shows the bright launch plume of SpaceX Crew-2 https://t.co/atfGMiGieF pic.twitter.com/nRnKuMhSEv
— Massimo (@Rainmaker1973b) April 24, 2021
— Supercluster (@SuperclusterHQ) April 23, 2021
Achievement unlocked: Post-launch jellyfish.
— Emre Kelly (@EmreKelly) April 23, 2021
"Space jellyfish" from @SpaceX's launch early this morning as seen from Sunny Isles Beach, FL🚀
— David Vergel (@DavidVergel97) April 23, 2021
This was the view of the 2nd stage, illuminated by the rising Sun, 6-mins after launch; one of the coolest launches I’ve seen.
— Michael Seeley (@Mike_Seeley) April 23, 2021
Pretty spectacular. #Carolina #sunrise #isleofpalms #scwx @WeatherFlowCHAS @RobStormTeam2 @DavidDicksonWX @MeganJamesWX @AnnaSimsWTVM @GarofaloWX @JimCantore @chswx @StormHour @wxnewsdesk @weatherchannel @scwxpix @IOPCity @IslandEyeNews @RBWSC @NASA @SpaceX pic.twitter.com/xU4jG2GwmD
— Ken Bowman (@kenbowmanphoto) April 23, 2021
— Chris G – NSF (@ChrisG_NSF) April 23, 2021
— Universal Orlando Resort (@UniversalORL) April 23, 2021
The @SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen in the distance behind the @uscapitol in Washington as it was launched from @NASAKennedy to @Space_Station. More launch photos coming, keep checking back! 📷 https://t.co/56Am0ERBaK pic.twitter.com/C7ZbImr7an
— NASA HQ PHOTO (@nasahqphoto) April 23, 2021
Update for 12:30 p.m. PT April 23: One of the traditions of orbital spaceflight is to carry along a “zero-gravity indicator” that tells strapped-down crew members when they’re weightless. For last May’s first crewed Dragon flight, a plush dinosaur called Tremor served as the indicator, and for November’s flight, it was a Baby Yoda toy. This time around, the zero-gravity indicator is a toy penguin nicknamed GuinGuin that’s already out of stock on the manufacturer’s website.
— collectSPACE (@collectSPACE) April 23, 2021
Update for 1 p.m. PT April 24: I’ve updated this report with Dragon Endeavour’s arrival at the space station — and I’ve also updated the time stamp for a report originally published after launch on April 23.