SpaceX launches Crew-4 to the space station in a record year

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SpaceX sent another crew of astronauts to the International Space Station early Wednesday, its 16th launch since the beginning of the year, as the company launches rockets into orbit in a cadence unparalleled in the history of American space exploration.

Wednesday’s launch brought three American astronauts and one from Italy. The crew exploded on a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center at 03.52 Eastern time for what should be a six-month stay in the orbiting laboratory. And it happened less than two days after the completion of the first mission to the station, which consisted exclusively of private citizens.

The majority of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launches this year have carried the company’s Starlink satellites, which are used to send the Internet to stations on Earth. SpaceX has been working feverishly to set up its satellite constellation, which stands at more than 2,000.

But coupled with its launches of people to the space station and the delivery of cargo there, SpaceX’s performance underscores the promise of commercial spaceflight and the success of CEO Elon Musk’s once radical idea of ​​reusing boosters that have flown before to reduce spaceflight.

“We are really in a golden era of space exploration,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a preflight news conference. He noted how Cape Canaveral and the Florida Space Coast, which were dying after the space shuttle retired in 2011, have come back to life as a number of companies develop new rockets and spacecraft.

“Think how the Cape has transformed,” he said. “Think of all the abandoned launch pads out there on the Cape and how they roar back to life.”

The booster, which exploded Wednesday, made its fourth flight, the first time astronauts were carried to space on a rocket that had flown so often. The flight, known as Crew-4, is SpaceX’s fourth operational mission under NASA’s Commercial Crew program. The three NASA astronauts on the spacecraft, called “Freedom”, were Kjell Lindgren, the mission chief, and Robert Hines and Jessica Watkins, who are on their first trips to space. Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian astronaut from the European Space Agency, joined them. Watkins would become the first black woman to live longer in space.

The crew is expected to dock at the station at 20.15 Eastern time Wednesday.

A few minutes before the start, Lindgren said to mission control: “Let Falcon roar and freedom rings.” When he was first in orbit, he said the crew “felt great and looked forward to the view.”

Instead of discarding its rockets after flight, as had been the practice in space exploration for decades, SpaceX flies the first stage back to a ship at sea or to a landing site on land so that it can be renovated and recycled. On Wednesday, the booster made a successful landing on the ship, marking SpaceX’s 116th booster landing.

So far, the company has flown two boosters a full 12 times. While officials at NASA and the Pentagon had once been skeptical about the reliability and performance of boosters that had endured the harshness of spaceflight, this mindset has changed dramatically in recent years.

This month, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, wrote it on Twitter while he “was always excited about using wing @ SpaceX boosters in principle and also the mission cost, I have changed my mind about them a bit: I now PREFER previously used boosters over brand new ones for most scientific applications. #FlyAndLearn.”

The National Reconnaissance Office, an intelligence agency, also allowed SpaceX to use a previously flown booster for a mission for the first time this year.

In the first quarter of this year, SpaceX launched 502 spacecraft, far more than any other provider and far faster than the Chinese space agency, which launched 38 during that time, according to BryceTech, a consulting firm. It has sent more than 250,000 pounds of mass into orbit, according to the company, far more than even Russia, which has shipped about 42,000 pounds.

The rest of the year looks set to be just as busy. Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has said that the company aims for 60 launches this year. Although the company may not reach this milestone, it has some major missions planned, including another crew launch for NASA in September. Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur, also hopes to fly another private mission into orbit before the end of the year.

Last year, he and a crew of three other civilians spent three days in orbit in SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft on a mission called Inspiration4.

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