Cosmic Space

SpaceX sends astronauts to orbit with a light show

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:

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.”

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:

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.

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.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

One reply on “SpaceX sends astronauts to orbit with a light show”

I do not know HOW it did not occur to me that this is the first time since Gemini that 2 U.S.human flight vehicles have been up…
With Orion and CST-100 yet to fly humans.

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