Lighting up the pre-dawn sky, a Falcon 9 rocket with a previously flown first stage roared to life and shot away up the East Coast early Friday, boosting a refurbished SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule into orbit carrying four astronauts on a day-long trip to the International Space Station.
Running 24 hours late because of threatening off-shore weather, the rocket's nine first stage engines ignited at 5:49 a.m. EDT, throttled up to a combined 1.7 million pounds of thrust and smoothly pushed the slender booster away from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.
Strapped in four abreast, commander Shane Kimbrough, co-pilot Megan McArthur, Frenchman Thomas Pesquet and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, all space veterans making their first flights aboard a SpaceX capsule, monitored the automated ascent on large touch-screen displays.
The launching provided a spectacular pre-dawn show for area residents and tourists as the Falcon 9 climbed skyward, shattering the morning calm along Florida's "Space Coast" with a thunderous wall of sound as the booster streaked away to the northeast over the Atlantic Ocean atop a sky-lighting jet of flame.
Looking on from the SpaceX launch control room was company founder and chief designer Elon Musk.
"It's very intense," he said of watching his third Falcon 9 take off with astronauts aboard. "I suppose it does get a little bit easier, but it's still extremely intense. I usually can't sleep the night before a launch and that was true of the night before this one.
"But fortunately, we've got a great team. I'm really, really proud of the incredible work that team has done in partnership with NASA. ... It's hard to believe that we're here doing this, quite frankly, it feels like a dream."
The Falcon 9's climb out of the lower atmosphere went smoothly and two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the first stage engines shut down, the booster fell away and the single engine powering the second stage took over, continuing the climb to orbit.
The first stage, meanwhile, flipped around and headed for landing on an off-shore droneship, touching down nine-and-a-half minutes after takeoff to chalk up the company's 80th successful stage recovery, its 58th at sea.
Two-and-a-half minutes after that, the Crew Dragon was released from the second stage to fly on its own. Docking at the space station is expected at 5:10 a.m. Saturday.
"Hello Earth! It's great to be back in space again," McArthur, making her second space flight, said in a video downlink from orbit. "The ascent was incredible, the ride was really smooth, we couldn't have asked for anything better. There might have been some hooting and giggling up here while all that was going on. We hope you enjoyed the show."
The astronauts were surprised late in the day as they were preparing for bed to wrap up a busy first day in orbit. SpaceX capsule communicator Sarah Gilles called to warn the crew that Space Command radars were tracking a potential close encounter, or conjunction, between the Crew Dragon and an unidentified piece of space debris. As a precaution, she told the astronauts to put their pressure suits back on.
"For awareness, we have identified a late breaking possible conjunction with a fairly close miss distance to Dragon," she radioed at 1:24 p.m. "As such, we do need you to immediately proceed with suit donning and securing yourselves in seats. We will be erring on the side of caution to get you guys into a better configuration."
The astronauts promptly put their pressure suits back on, strapped into their seats and closed their helmet visors. But as it turned out, the debris was farther away than originally predicted and passed by without incident.
The launching marked only the third piloted flight to orbit from U.S. soil since the shuttle's retirement in 2011 and the second operational Crew Dragon mission, a flight known simply as "Crew-2," as NASA transitions away from its post-shuttle, sole reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
In a first for NASA's commercial crew program, the Crew-2 astronauts rode into orbit atop a Falcon 9 rocket with a previously flown first stage, strapped into a Crew Dragon making its second flight.
The capsule first flew last May, carrying Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken — McArthur's husband — into orbit in the program's first and only piloted test flight. The second piloted flight, which blasted off last November 15, carried four astronauts to the space station for SpaceX's first operational Crew Dragon mission.
After its first flight, the Crew-2 capsule was structurally beefed up to make it better able to withstand the forces imparted during windy weather splashdowns in rough seas, somewhat easing strict landing weather constraints. The spacecraft's abort system was upgraded, enabling on-pad emergency escape in higher winds, new parachutes were installed and a new heat shield was attached.
At a post-flight briefing, Musk repeated his long-standing goal for SpaceX rockets, saying "full and rapid reusability" is the key to lowering the cost of spaceflight.
"The thing that's really important to revolutionize space is a rapidly reusable rocket," he said. "That's really what needs to happen. If that can be done, then the cost of access to orbit and beyond can be reduced by potentially a factor of 100 or more."
Musk started SpaceX two decades ago, and "it's only recently, though, that I feel that full and rapid reusability can be accomplished. I wasn't sure for a long time, but I'm sure now."
While the Falcon 9 is only partially reusable — the rocket's second stage is not recovered — the company's planned Starship heavy-lift rocket will be fully reusable and should be ready to fly with passengers within a few years.
"The future's looking good," he said. "I think we're at the dawn of a new era of space exploration."
For their part, the Crew-2 astronauts said they were comfortable flying aboard a "used" crew ship for the first time since the shuttle program ended. That's not surprising, perhaps, given SpaceX has now reflown 60 first stage boosters, one of which has nine flights to its credit. Two others have flown eight times.
McArthur flew aboard a space shuttle to service the Hubble Space Telescope during her previous trip to orbit. When she found out she would be strapping into the same Crew Dragon that carried her husband to and from the space station last year, "I was thrilled and surprised. It's kind of a neat twist on the whole story."
As for their young son and the question of risk, McArthur said, "it's always hard to know exactly what a child absorbs (but) his understanding of it has evolved over time."
"He recently saw his father launch and then stay on the International Space Station for two months. And now it's mom's turn. ... When he talks about it, he talks about well, he's going to go next. But he's going to go to (the Transformers' home planet) Cybertron. So he's got big goals as well!"
With a picture-perfect launch behind then, the Crew Dragon astronauts monitor the initial stages of the spacecraft's automated rendezvous with the space station before going to "bed." Wakeup was expected late Friday to prepare for docking with the space station early Saturday.
They will be welcomed aboard by space station commander Shannon Walker and fellow Crew-1 astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, along with Soyuz MS-18/64S commander Oleg Novitskiy, Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei.
The Soyuz crew arrived on April 9, docking at the station three hours after launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. They replaced Soyuz MS-17/63S commander Sergey Ryzhikov, Sergey Kud-Sverchkov and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, who undocked and returned to Earth April 17 to close out a 185-day stay in space.
The arrival of the Crew-2 astronauts will briefly boost the lab's crew from seven to 11. But after a four-day handover, Hopkins, Glover, Walker and Noguchi will undock and return to Earth in their own Crew Dragon, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico south of Tallahassee, Florida, around 12:40 p.m. Wednesday to close out a 164-day mission.
Before the Soyuz crew departed, Ryzhikov turned over command of the space station to Walker. The day before her departure, Walker plans to turn the complex over to Hoshide, who will be in command during the Tokyo Olympics, assuming COVID concerns do not trigger another delay.
"If I (am) up there for the Olympic Games, that would be great, it'd be awesome to watch it and cheer for the all the teams from different countries from space station, especially since it's the Tokyo Olympics," he said. "We slip, they slipped, hopefully we align again. But either way is fine with me."
All seven crew members face a particularly busy six months in space with multiple U.S. and Russian spacewalks planned, the arrival of four cargo ships loaded with science gear, crew supplies, spare parts and new roll-out solar array blankets needed to boost the lab's power.
Four NASA-planned spacewalks will be needed to install two sets of IROSA solar blankets and two Russian EVAs are planned to make connections between the station and a new Russian laboratory module that's scheduled for launch in mid July atop a powerful Proton rocket.
To make way for the new laboratory compartment, the cosmonaut crew plans to jettison the station's Pirs docking and airlock compartment, using an attached Progress supply ship to drive it back into the atmosphere. After the lab module is docked in place of Pirs, Novitskiy, Dubrov and Vande Hei will strap into their Soyuz and fly it to docking at a port on the newly-arrived lab.
The Crew-2 astronauts and the Soyuz MS-18/64S crew will return to Earth in late September and mid October respectively.