The SpaceX crew, from left, NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) astronaut Soichi Noguchi. Credit: AFP/NASA.

We watched as Crew Dragon astronauts suited up and prepared for launch — waving at onlookers and riding in white Teslas to the gantry at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

That, and everything else, went perfectly.

The textbook blast-off, the crew monitoring their high-tech stations, and the return of the first stage, on a platform in the ocean.

Three Americans — Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker — and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi will blast off at 7.27 pm on Sunday, headed for the International Space Station.

When the team arrives, it will join NASA’s Kate Rubins and Russian space agency (Roscosmos) cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov.

SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station on Sunday, the first full-fledged taxi flight for NASA by a private company, CBC news reported.

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 Monday and remain there until spring.

Sidelined by the virus himself, SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk was forced to monitor the action from afar. He tweeted that he “most likely” had a moderate case of Covid-19, CBC reported.

NASA policy at Kennedy Space Center requires anyone testing positive for 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 US and the space station, after years of delay. More people means more science research at the orbiting lab, the CBC reported.

“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.

NASA turned to SpaceX and Boeing after shuttering the checkered Space Shuttle program in 2011, which failed in its main objectives of making space travel affordable and safe, Channel News Asia reported.

The Cargo Dragon capsule approaches the ISS on a previous, unmanned space mission. Credit: SpaceX.

The agency will have spent more than US$8 billion on the Commercial Crew program by 2024, with the hope that the private sector can take care of NASA’s needs in “low Earth orbit” so it is freed up to focus on missions to the Moon and then on to Mars.

SpaceX, founded by Musk in 2002, has leapfrogged its much older rival Boeing, whose program has floundered after a failed test of its Starliner last year, CNA reported.

But SpaceX’s success won’t mean the US will stop hitching rides with Russia altogether, said Bridenstine.

“We want to have an exchange of seats where American astronauts can fly on Russian Soyuz rockets and Russian cosmonauts can fly on commercial crew vehicles,” he said, explaining it was necessary in case either program was down for a period of time.

The reality, however, is that space ties between the US and Russia, one of the few bright spots in their bilateral relations, have frayed in recent years.

Russia has said it won’t be a partner in the Artemis program to return to the Moon in 2024, claiming the NASA-led mission is too US-centric, CNA reported.

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency has also repeatedly mocked SpaceX’s technology, and this summer announced Roscosmos would build rockets that surpass Musk’s.

He told a state news agency he was unimpressed with the Crew Dragon’s water landing, calling it “rather rough” and saying his agency was developing a reusable methane rocket.

The Falcon rocket’s Merlin engines use a rocket grade kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen as rocket propellants in a gas-generator power cycle. 

Nevertheless, SpaceX’s stunning emergence has also deprived Roscosmos of a valuable income stream, CNA reported.

The cost of round-trips on Russian rockets had been rising and stood at around US$85 million per astronaut, according to estimates last year.

So far, US President-Elect Joe Biden has not commented on the 2024 timeline.

Democratic party documents say they support NASA’s Moon and Mars aspirations, but also emphasize elevating the agency’s Earth sciences division to better understand how climate change is affecting our planet.

(Sources: CBC News, BBC News, NASA, Channel News Asia)

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