SpaceX launches into history with its first NASA crew mission

By The Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. » Hawthorne-based SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station on Sunday on the first full-fledged taxi flight for NASA by a private company, with a history-making crew member aboard, Navy Cmdr. Victor Glover, a Pomona native.

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 — was due to reach the space station late today and remain there until spring.

The three-man, one-woman crew is about as diverse as space teams come, including Glover, the first Black astronaut on a long-term space station mission, physicist Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, who became the first person in almost 40 years to launch on three types of spacecraft.


Pomona-born Glover, a Navy commander, aviator and test pilot, is taking his first spaceflight as a Crew Dragon First Mission astronaut.

Glover was first selected an astronaut in 2013 and has logged just under 3,000 hours flying 40 different aircraft. Glover, who attended Ontario High and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, made 400 successful carrier landings and flew 24 combat missions while serving in the Navy.

Next year, he could be followed by Jeanette Epps, who would be the first Black woman to be part of a space station crew. She will fly aboard the first operational crewed trip of Boeing’s Starliner capsule. (In 2018, she was pulled from a flight to the station and replaced with Serena Auñón-Chancellor.) Sidelined by the coronavirus, SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk was forced to monitor the action from afar on Sunday. He tweeted that he “most likely” had a moderate case of COVID-19. NASA policy at Kennedy Space Center requires anyone testing positive for the 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. More people means more science research at the orbiting lab, according to officials.

“This is another historic moment,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Friday. But he noted: “Make no mistake: Vigilance is always required on every flight.”

The flight to the space station — 27½ hours door to door — should be entirely automated, although the crew can take control if needed.

With the coronavirus still surging, NASA continued the safety precautions put in place for SpaceX’s crew launch in May. The astronauts went into quarantine with their families in October. All launch personnel wore masks, and the number of guests at Kennedy was limited. Even the two astronauts on the first SpaceX crew flight stayed behind at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Vice President Mike Pence, chairman of the National Space Council, traveled from Washington to watch the launch.

Outside the space center gates, officials anticipated hundreds of thousands of spectators to jam nearby beaches and towns.

NASA worried a weekend liftoff — coupled with a dramatic nighttime launch — could lead to a superspreader event. They urged the crowds to wear masks and maintain safe distances. Similar pleas for SpaceX’s first crew launch on May 30 went unheeded.

The crew, led by Cmdr. Mike Hopkins, an Air Force colonel, named their capsule Resilience in a nod not only to the pandemic but also racial injustice and contentious politics.

They rode out to the launch pad in Teslas — another Musk company — after exchanging high-fives and hand embraces with their children and spouses, who huddled at the open car windows. Musk was replaced by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell in bidding the astronauts farewell.

Besides its sleek design and high-tech features, the Dragon capsule is quite spacious and can carry up to seven people. Previous space capsules have launched with no more than three. The extra room in the capsule was used for science experiments and supplies.

The four astronauts will be joining two Russians and one American who flew to the space station last month from Kazakhstan.

The first-stage booster — aiming for an ocean platform several minutes after liftoff — is expected to be recycled by SpaceX for the next crew launch. That’s targeted for the end of March, which would set up the newly launched astronauts for a return to Earth in April. SpaceX would launch yet another crew in late summer or early fall.

SpaceX and NASA wanted the booster recovered so badly that they delayed the launch attempt by a day, to give the floating platform time to reach its position in the Atlantic over the weekend following rough seas.

Boeing, NASA’s other contracted crew transporter, is trailing by a year. A repeat of last December’s software-plagued test flight without a crew is off until sometime early next year, with the first astronaut flight of the Starliner capsule not expected before summer.

NASA turned to private companies to haul cargo and crew to the space station after the shuttle fleet retired in 2011. SpaceX qualified for both. With Kennedy back in astronaut launching action, NASA can stop buying seats on Russian Soyuz rockets. The last one cost $90 million.

The commander of SpaceX’s first crew, Doug Hurley, noted it’s not just about saving money or easing the training burdens for crews.

“Bottom line: I think it’s just better for us to be flying from the United States if we can do that,” he told The Associated Press last week.

Astronaut’s milestone

Last week, Glover modestly nodded to the historical significance of his flight.

“It is something to be celebrated once we accomplish it, and I am honored to be in this position and to be a part of this great and experienced crew,” he said. “And I look forward to getting up there and doing my best to make sure, you know, we are worthy of all the work that’s been put into setting us up for this mission. You know, unlike the election — that is in the past or receding in the past — this mission is still ahead of me. So, let’s get there, and I’ll talk to you after I get on board.”

During the summer, Glover responded to a question on social media about astronauts sticking strictly to space.

“Actually no,” he said on Twitter. “Remember who is doing space. People are. As we address extreme weather and pandemic disease, we will understand and overcome racism and bigotry so we can safely and together do space. Thanks for asking.”

He also said in an interview with The Christian Chronicle, a publication of the Churches of Christ, that the milestone was “bittersweet.”

“I’ve had some amazing colleagues before me that really could have done it, and there are some amazing folks that will go behind me,” Mr. Glover said. “I wish it would have already been done, but I try not to draw too much attention to it.” The New York Times contributed to this report.

Crowds on the beach in Cape Canaveral, Fla., watch the launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 Crew Dragon on its Crew-1mission carrying four astronauts Sunday in this 31⁄2-minute time exposure. The rocket was launched from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center at 4:27p.m. Sunday Pacific Standard Time.  MALCOLM DENEMARK — FLORIDA TODAY VIA AP

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