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Elon Musk's SpaceX Launches Four Astronauts into Orbit

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 11/16/2020 Andy Pasztor
a close up of smoke © gregg newton/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched four astronauts into orbit Sunday evening, marking the company’s first full-fledged operational mission with humans on board and beginning regularly scheduled commercial flights to the International Space Station.

Carrying a full complement of crew members, the mission boosted SpaceX’s stature as the first company approved by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to ferry people routinely into space. It also provided a capstone for the agency’s strategy of using public-private partnerships to accelerate human space exploration.

Blastoff of the Crew Dragon capsule, named Resilience, at 7:27 p.m. ET from Cape Canaveral, Fla., was the start of a roughly 27-hour trip to link up with the space station. It followed NASA’s formal decision last week designating SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule as safe to transport astronauts for routine crew rotation and other operational flights serving the international laboratory. Months before, two other NASA astronauts completed a smooth test flight of an earlier version of the capsule to the station.

The Falcon 9 slowly left the pad on Sunday precisely on schedule as required, churning out more than 1.3 million pounds of thrust, accelerating with a deep rumble and trailing a bright orange plume that illuminated the night sky. Roughly 12 minutes later, ground controllers announced the capsule separated safely from the rocket’s upper stage and its systems appeared to be operating normally.

A little earlier, the lower portion of the rocket, including its nine main engines, returned and gently touched down vertically on a specially outfitted ocean platform. SpaceX and NASA already have agreed to reuse that lower stage—something agency officials haven’t previously permitted for human flights—to power the company’s next commercial crew launch in the spring.

NASA’s official endorsement of the Dragon’s safety was the long-term goal of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the official name of the closely held Southern California company, throughout six years of roller-coaster development and testing. Over that stretch, the SpaceX team had to surmount a pair of catastrophic rocket explosions, complex problems with the capsule’s parachutes and a 2019 explosive failure of emergency-escape engines. They are intended to whisk astronauts to safety in the event of an aborted launch. Nobody was injured in those accidents, but they set back the program and gave ammunition to industry and congressional critics.

Throughout those high-profile problems and technical challenges, though, Mr. Musk and his team persevered in following a more-nimble, less bureaucratic path for engineering and design verification than NASA had embraced previously.

Sunday’s launch was the vindication of that approach, as happy shouts and loud clapping echoed from SpaceX’s primary ground control room in Hawthorne, Calif., while jubilant NASA and agency leaders prepared to face reporters.

During a press conference, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell underscored the company’s plans over the next 15 months to launch seven Dragon capsules on behalf of NASA, including three cargo versions. Sunday’s mission, she said, “represents the initiation of a Dragon in orbit continuously” and “really the beginning of a new era in human space flight.”

Kathy Lueders, who heads NASA’s human exploration push, said “it’s been quite a journey” with SpaceX and “everybody is so fired up, they’re so excited” in the wake of the successful launch. “But we’re not done yet, we need to keep going.” she added. “That spacecraft is out there with those four precious crew members.”

When NASA chief Jim Bridenstine welcomed the astronauts to the launch site at Kennedy Space Center a week ago, he emphasized the ever-present dangers of space travel. “Make no mistake,” he told reporters. “Every flight is a test.” But, he added: “It’s also true that we need to routinely be able to go to the International Space Station.”

Since the retirement of the space-shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA has envisioned eventually relying on privately developed and operated space capsules to handle human orbital missions. Meanwhile, NASA has relied exclusively on Russian rockets and capsules as it awaited domestic options.

SpaceX launches are projected to cost NASA about 40% less on a per astronaut basis than what the Kremlin has charged. The broader U.S. aim is to free up agency funds to explore deeper into the solar system.

A successful test flight in May of a Dragon capsule carrying two astronauts  played out without any major problems, clearing the way for Sunday’s attempt. The latest spacecraft has upgrades to its solar arrays, fuel pumps and heat shield.

It was the first time NASA has put four astronauts into a capsule. During its six-month stay, the crew—which includes a Japanese astronaut who previously flew on the space shuttle, Soichi Noguchi—is expected to provide additional personnel to step up work on a variety of scientific experiments, including in-space manufacturing and health studies.

The mission also includes Victor Glover, who was selected as an astronaut in 2013 and would be the first Black person to spend extended time on the station as a crew member, as well as Michael Hopkins, a colonel in the U.S. Space Force, and Shannon Walker, who has a doctorate in space physics.

When NASA determined SpaceX was ready for operational missions, Ms. Lueders said: “You have shown us you can deliver a crew transportation capability that meets our requirements.” NASA significantly raised the safety bar for Dragon capsules versus the space-shuttle fleet, which was developed in the 1970s.

Last week, Mr. Musk called NASA’s certification “a great honor that inspires confidence in our endeavor to return to the moon, travel to Mars and ultimately help humanity become multi-planetary.”

But the lead-up to Sunday’s planned flight was hardly routine. On Thursday, Mr. Musk revealed that he had two positive and two negative rapid-response tests for the virus that causes Covid-19. NASA initially indicated the flight’s status was uncertain because of Mr. Musk’s medical situation, before postponing the liftoff to Sunday from Saturday for unrelated weather issues.

But by Saturday, the weather forecasts for the launchpad improved and Mr. Musk’s situation was partly clarified. In a message on Twitter, SpaceX’s founder said, “Most likely I have a moderate case of covid,” but he didn’t indicate whether he had received additional test results. “My symptoms are that of a minor cold,” he wrote.

By then, NASA’s Mr. Bridenstine had concluded that NASA rules required Mr. Musk to self-quarantine. But since Mr. Musk hadn’t come into contact with any personnel essential for the mission, according to Mr. Bridenstine, the launch was on. The astronauts have been quarantined since late October to safeguard them from the pandemic.

A SpaceX spokesman didn’t respond to requests for comment on Mr. Musk’s medical condition. Ms. Shotwell, one of the SpaceX founder’s closest aides, accompanied Mr. Bridenstine to chat briefly with the astronauts in a ground facility after the crew donned spacesuits but before they strapped into the capsule. Responding to post-launch questions about the extent of Mr. Musk’s involvement in last-day preparations and the blastoff itself, she said with a slight grin: “Elon was tied in very closely to the launch, I have a series of texts to prove it.” She also said that “as usual, regardless of where he is on the planet, he is watching closely and providing guidance and support.”

Despite persistent clouds and showers in the vicinity of the pad for much of the day, the weather ended up good enough for blastoff, and was acceptable at emergency landing sites. The countdown wound down with only a minor technical hiccup during preparation leading up to the launch, before the fiery ascent of the 208-foot tall combination of the Falcon 9 rocket and teardrop shaped spacecraft.

SpaceX has received more than $3.1 billion in federal funds so far for its commercial-crew program, while rival Boeing Co. has received an estimated $4.8 billion.

Boeing suffered a botched flight test at the end of 2019 when a software problem prevented its Starliner capsule, without anyone on board, from reaching the proper orbit to link up with the space station. Boeing is expected to launch another test flight in coming months, also without people on board, with astronauts likely to follow in a demonstration mission to the station perhaps sometime in 2021.

It isn’t clear what changes President-elect Joe Biden may make to NASA’s priorities, but many of the transition team members he named to examine NASA have a history of supporting public-private partnerships.

Mr. Bridenstine, who already has announced plans to leave his job as a result of the election, reiterated the potential sweep of commercial space projects. “Our goal has been, and will be, to be one customer of many customers in a very robust commercial marketplace in low-earth orbit.” Calling it a beautiful launch, he said it should be considered the first of many commercial breakthroughs including the emergence of private space stations.

Despite the pandemic, local tourism officials were quoted saying they expected hundreds of thousands of people to line area roads and viewing sites to watch the blastoff.

The launch comes amid varied but unrelated challenges for Mr. Musk. His proposed giant Starship spacecraft days ago suffered its third consecutive serious engine malfunction during ground tests. And aerospace rivals have challenged a recent SpaceX military contract to build prototypes of a new generation of small, low-altitude satellites potentially suitable for missions ranging from tracking missiles to identifying orbital debris to spying on hostile forces on the ground.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

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