CAPE CANAVERAL (CBS NEWS)
Four astronauts braced for launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Wednesday evening to kick off a 22-hour rendezvous with the International Space Station. The launching comes just two days after the crew they are replacing returned to Earth to close out the longest flight in American space history.
Watch a replay of the launch in the player below or by clicking here:
Crew-3 commander Raja Chari, co-pilot Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer planned to blast off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 9:03 p.m. EST, 10 days late because of bad weather, a minor medical issue and the Crew Dragon return to Earth Monday.
The station was expected to pass by just east of the launch pad about eight minutes before takeoff. Russian flight controllers planned to adjust the station’s orbit slightly a few hours prior to launch to avoid a piece of debris from a Chinese satellite that was destroyed in an anti-satellite weapon test in 2007.
The maneuver had no impact on the Crew-3 flight plan and once out of the lower atmosphere, the Falcon 9’s first stage, making its second flight, was expected to separate, flip around and head for landing on an off-shore drone ship stationed several hundred miles downrange in the Atlantic Ocean.
If successful, it will mark SpaceX’s 93rd booster recovery and its 70th at sea. The Falcon 9 second stage, meanwhile, will continue the climb to orbit, releasing the Crew Dragon to fly on its own about 12 minutes after liftoff.
From there, Chari, a former F-35 test pilot and Air Force combat veteran, will monitor an automated rendezvous with the space station, approaching from behind and below before moving in for docking at the forward port of the lab’s Harmony module around 7:10 p.m. Thursday.
A Crew Dragon launched in September had a leaky fitting in its toilet plumbing and a similar issue was found with the Crew-2 Dragon, prompting the returning crew to forego the use of their toilet during the trip back to Earth. The suspect fitting in the Crew-3 capsule was modified before launch and no problems were expected.
Standing by to welcome their new crewmates aboard will be Soyuz MS-19/65S commander Anton Shkaplerov, cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei. Dubrov and Vande Hei, launched to the station on April 9, plan to return to Earth next March 30, logging nearly a full year — 355 days — in space.
Chari, Marshburn, Barron and Maurer plan to remain aboard the station until late April, handing off to another four astronauts riding up on another new Crew Dragon, the fourth in SpaceX’s inventory. The planned duration of the Crew-3 flight is nearly 166 days.
The return of Crew-2 and the launch of Crew-3 comes amid a flurry of short-duration commercial space flights ranging from the all-civilian Inspiration4 charity mission to low-Earth orbit in September to a 12-day stay on the space station by a Russian actress and film director last month.
The Crew-3 flight will be followed by a space station visit in December by a Japanese billionaire and his assistant riding a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, followed by another Crew Dragon flight in February carrying four civilians to the space station for a 10-day visit.
Aside from the commercial visits, a new Russian module is expected to arrive at the station the day after Thanksgiving, and Marshburn and Barron plan a spacewalk the following week to replace an external antenna. More spacewalks are planned early next year to continue upgrading the station’s solar power system.
“We really feel super lucky to be at NASA at such an exciting time,” said Barron, a Naval Academy graduate and one of the first women to serve aboard a nuclear submarine.
“We’re really at the dawn of this new era where we have commercial space flight partners who are flying human beings to low-Earth orbit, who are partnering with us and getting ready to kind of take it over so we can focus on exploration, going to the moon so that we can learn how to go to Mars.”
On a more personal level, “this will actually be the first rocket launch I’ve seen in person,” she told reporters later, “and I’ll be in the capsule on the top of it. So I’m really excited for the whole experience.”
Going into the flight, just 598 individuals had flown in space, including Marshburn. Chari and Marshburn are both seated just ahead of Barron and Maurer in the Crew Dragon, so Chari will become the 599th person to reach space. By luck of the draw, Maurer, designated mission specialist No. 1, will be listed as the 600th and Barron, MS-2, the 601st.
The Crew-3 astronauts originally planned to launch October 31, but the flight was delayed by bad weather in the downrange abort landing zone and then by an unspecified “minor medical issue” with one of the four astronauts.
The flight was delayed again by bad weather and yet again when NASA decided to bring Crew-2 astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide back to Earth Monday.
NASA prefers to launch fresh station crew members while the departing crew is still aboard, allowing the outgoing astronauts to brief their replacements, face to face, on the ins and outs of station operations.
But given the weather and the medical issue with Crew-3, NASA opted instead to press ahead with Crew-2’s return to Earth firt, in part to take advantage of good weather in the Gulf of Mexico splashdown zone and because the Crew-2 Dragon capsule was nearing its 210-day on-orbit certification limit.
The re-entry and descent to splashdown went off without a hitch, but one of the capsule’s four main parachutes took 75 seconds longer to inflate than the other three. Engineers recovered the chute and carried out a detailed inspection, but no problems were found and managers cleared the Crew-3 Dragon for launch.