BOSTON (CBS/AP) - SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station on Sunday on the first full-fledged taxi flight for NASA by a private company.
The Falcon rocket thundered into the night from Kennedy Space Center with three Americans and one Japanese, the second crew to be launched by SpaceX. The Dragon capsule on top — named Resilience by its crew in light of this year's many challenges, most notably COVID-19 — reached orbit nine minutes later. It is due to reach the space station late Monday and remain there until spring.
"By working together through these difficult times, you've inspired the nation, the world, and in no small part the name of this incredible vehicle, Resilience," Commander Mike Hopkins said right before liftoff.
Once reaching orbit, he radioed: "That was one heck of a ride."
Sidelined by the coronavirus himself, SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk was forced to monitor the action from afar. He tweeted that he "most likely" had a moderate case of COVID-19. NASA policy at Kennedy Space Center requires anyone testing positive for coronavirus to quarantine and remain isolated.
Sunday's launch follows by just a few months SpaceX's two-pilot test flight. It kicks off what NASA hopes will be a long series of crew rotations between the U.S. and the space station, after years of delay.
Veteran NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, who grew up in Needham, watched the Falcon 9 rocket soar into space.
While the crew will be in space for six months, Williams says they will be very busy.
"They'll be doing all sorts of science experiments to include experiments on themselves and understand what happens to the human body, as well as new technologies and exploration," Williams said. "They'll be doing spacewalks for new technologies on the outside of the space station. So it's going to be a jam packed six months for them."
Williams says prepping for the mission has been challenging during a pandemic.
"Of course, we all are dealing with this COVID situation. So it makes it even a little bit more interesting," said Williams. "But as usual, for astronauts, we go through a quarantine period about two weeks before we go to space to make sure that we're healthy and safe when we get up there. We don't give any diseases or issues to the people who are living up there."
Despite those standard precautions, there is a lot of excitement. There are hopes that this is only the beginning of a new chapter in space exploration.
"And now, we are fully operational with a full crew to go to the International Space Station and conduct all the experiments in the science that is going on up there," said Williams. "So this will now be a routine thing, where we'll be taking people to the International Space Station on these commercial vehicles, which is pretty spectacular."
(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press' Marcia Dunn contributed to this report.)
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