The majority of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launches this year have carried the company’s Starlink satellites, which are used to beam the Internet to stations on the ground. SpaceX has been working feverishly to put up its satellite constellation, which stands at more than 2,000.
But taken together with its launches of people to the space station and the delivery of cargo there, SpaceX’s performance underscores the promise of commercial space flight and the success of CEO Elon Musk’s once radical idea of reusing boosters that have flown before to cut the expense of space ventures.
“We are really in a golden era of space exploration,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a preflight news conference. He noted how Cape Canaveral and the Florida Space Coast, which were moribund after the space shuttle retired in 2011, have come back to life, as a number of companies develop new rockets and spacecraft.
“Think how the Cape has transformed,” he said. “Think about all of those abandoned launchpads out there on the Cape and how they are roaring back to life.”
The booster that blasted off Wednesday was making its fourth flight, the first time astronauts were carried to space on a rocket that had flown that often. The flight, known as Crew-4, is SpaceX’s fourth operational mission under NASA’s Commercial Crew program. The three NASA astronauts on the spacecraft, dubbed “Freedom,” were Kjell Lindgren, the mission commander, and Robert Hines and Jessica Watkins, who are making their first trips to space. Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian astronaut with the European Space Agency, joined them. Watkins would become the first Black woman to live for an extended time in space.
The crew is expected to dock with the station at 8:15 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday.
A few minutes before liftoff, Lindgren told mission control, “Let Falcon roar and freedom ring.” Once in orbit, he said that the crew was “feeling great and looking forward to the view.”
Instead of discarding its rockets after flight, as had been the practice in space exploration for decades, SpaceX flies the first stage back to a ship at sea or to a landing pad on land so that it can be refurbished and reused. On Wednesday, the booster made a successful landing on the ship, marking SpaceX’s 116th booster landing.
So far, the company has flown two boosters as many as 12 times. While officials at NASA and the Pentagon had once been skeptical about the reliability and performance of boosters that had endured the harshness of space flight, that mind-set has changed dramatically in recent years.
This month, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the science mission directorate, wrote on Twitter that while he was “always excited about utilizing flown @SpaceX boosters on principle and also the mission cost, I have changed my opinion about them slightly: I now PREFER previously used boosters over totally new ones for most science applications. #FlyAndLearn.”
The National Reconnaissance Office, an intelligence agency, also allowed SpaceX for the first time to use a previously flown booster for a mission this year.
In the first quarter of this year, SpaceX launched 502 spacecraft, far more than any other provider and far outpacing the Chinese space agency, which launched 38 during that time, according to BryceTech, a consulting firm. It has launched more than 250,000 pounds of mass to orbit, according to the firm, far more than even Russia, which has launched about 42,000 pounds.
The rest of the year promises to be just as busy. Musk, SpaceX’s founder, has said the company is aiming for 60 launches this year. While the company may not meet that milestone, it has some major missions planned, including another crew launch for NASA in September. Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur, is also hoping to fly another private mission to orbit by the end of the year.
Last year, he and a crew of three other civilians spent three days in orbit in SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft in a mission dubbed Inspiration4.