Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk‘s rocket company SpaceX has launched four astronauts into orbit as part of a NASA mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
The astronauts were due to arrive at the space station on Wednesday night, 16 hours after their predawn liftoff from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, southeastern United States.
Kathy Lueders, NASA’s space operations mission chief, said the crew was likely “one of the most diversified” in the history of the US space agency to travel together to space.
Comprised equally of men and women, the crew also included the first Black woman making a long-term spaceflight: Jessica Watkins, a 33-year-old geologist who earned her doctorate studying the processes behind large landslides on Mars and Earth and went on to join the science team for the Mars rover Curiosity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Also in the crew were 49-year-old Dr Kjell Lindgren, an emergency medical physician on his second trip to the ISS; Bob Hines, a 47-year-old US Air Force fighter pilot; and Samantha Cristoforetti, a 45-year-old European Space Agency astronaut and Italian Air Force jet pilot making her second flight to the space station.
“Our heartfelt thank you to every one of you that made this possible. Now let Falcon roar and Freedom ring,” said Lindgren, the commander, as their capsule safely entered orbit. “It was a great ride.”
The early morning launch came just two days after SpaceX and NASA completed the first chartered flight to the ISS, after years of opposition.
The SpaceX capsules are fully automated, opening their use to a broader clientele. They are carried to space with the reusable Falcon 9 rocket. The capsules are also designed to accommodate a wider range of body sizes.
In September 2021, SpaceX completed the first all-civilian flight into orbit, which followed launches to the edge of space by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson.
The US space agency said the three civilian visitors to the ISS, who paid $55m each to visit the space station, blended in while doing experiments and educational outreach. They were accompanied by a former NASA astronaut employed by Houston-based Axiom Space, which arranged the flight.
The ISS, the largest artificial object in space, spanning the size of an American football field end-to-end, has been continuously occupied since November 2000, operated by a US-Russian-led international consortium of five space agencies from 15 countries.
An international crew of at least seven people typically lives and works on board the platform while travelling 8km (5 miles) per second, circling Earth once about every 90 minutes.
The station’s microgravity environment provides scientists a unique laboratory to run specially designed experiments on everything from fluid mechanics and combustion to cell growth and ageing.