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NASA launch to Space Station signals new era

The first privately run spacecraft certified by NASA to fly people launched into orbit and docked with the International Space Station carrying four astronauts.

The first privately owned and operated spacecraft certified by NASA to fly people launched successfully into orbit and docked with the International Space Station on Monday night, carrying four astronauts as part of a new business-supported era of space exploration.

The trip to the Space Station began with liftoff amid fiery exhaust at 7:27 p.m. on Sunday in Florida. The successful launch by SpaceX and NASA from Kennedy Space Center brought NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, into orbit nine minutes later.

After a 27-hour journey, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, maneuvering itself autonomously 250 miles above the surface of the Earth, docked with the Space Station. The crew also had the ability to take over the controls and fly the spacecraft manually, rather than rely on its computers.

“It was a very nice night on board Resilience,” Hopkins told NASA's Mission Control Center at Houston, using the name the crew uses for the Crew Dragon capsule. The astronauts are at the start of a six-month science mission aboard the Space Station, NASA officials said in a statement.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine promised a new era of "safe, reliable, and cost-effective missions to the International Space Station using American private industry" that will fulfill the American space agency's commitment "to carry on our partnership for all of humanity.”

Full-time research schedule

The four astronauts launched by NASA and SpaceX joined Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov and NASA flight engineer Kate Rubins. Until next April, the seven aboard ISS for Expedition 64 will conduct research into biology, Earth science, human research, physical sciences and technology development, providing the foundation for continuing human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars.It is the first time ISS has been staffed with seven crew members for the long haul. Since 2009, the Space Station usually had six crew members. Before that it hosted two or three people at a time while the $100 billion research outpost was under construction.

"During Expedition 64, crew members will grow radishes in a study to better understand plant growth and nutrition in microgravity, conduct cancer therapy research, study how mining with microbes might be used on asteroids, and continue research into the effects of microgravity on the heart," NASA said in a statement.

After testing positive for a COVID-19 infection, SpaceX's founder, billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk — who started the space company in 2002 with a dream of sending people to Mars — had to watch remotely as the first full-fledged flight into orbit with a full crew of astronauts aboard his privately built and owned rocket got underway. NASA requires anyone testing positive for coronavirus to quarantine.

In May, two NASA astronauts made the first American crewed launch in nearly a decade with their arrival at ISS aboard the Crew Dragon capsule launched by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. But that mission, with NASA test pilots Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, was considered a test flight.

Behnken and Hurley spent two months at the International Space Station, starting with their May 31 arrival aboard the Crew Dragon capsule. Their successful mission ended with the splashdown off the coast of Florida. While aboard ISS for 62 days, Behnken and Hurley joined NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner for a series of scientific experiments, spacewalks and public engagement events. Overall, they spent 64 days in orbit and completed 1,024 orbits around Earth.The ISS, an international partnership of space agencies from Canada (CSA), Europe (ESA), Japan (JAXA), Russia (ROSCOSMOS) and the United States (NASA), is the “most politically complex space exploration program” ever undertaken, according to NASA.