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SpaceX launched four astronauts toward orbit Friday using a recycled rocket and capsule, the third crew flight in less than a year for Elon Musk's rapidly expanding company.
The astronauts from the US, Japan and France should reach the International Space Station early Saturday morning, following a 23-hour ride in the same Dragon capsule used by SpaceX's debut crew last May. They'll spend six months at the orbiting lab.
It was the first time SpaceX reused a capsule and rocket to launch astronauts for NASA, after years of proving the capability on station supply runs. The rocket was used last November on the company's second astronaut flight.
Embracing the trend, spacecraft commander Shane Kimbrough and his crew weeks ago wrote their initials in the rocket's soot, hoping to start a tradition.
For NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, it was a bit of deja vu. She launched in the same seat in the same capsule as her husband, Bob Behnken, did during SpaceX's first crew flight. This time it was Behnken and their 7-year-old son waving goodbye. McArthur blew kisses and offered virtual hugs.
Also flying SpaceX on Friday: Japan's Akihiko Hoshide and France's Thomas Pesquet, the first European to launch in a commercial crew capsule.
A masked Musk met briefly with the astronauts at NASA's Kennedy Space Center before they boarded white gull-winged Teslas from his electric car company.
The astronauts' spouses and children huddled around the cars for one last love you before the caravan pulled away and headed to the pad in the predawn darkness.
Despite the early hour, spectators lined surrounding roads to watch the Falcon take flight an hour before sunrise. Liftoff was delayed a day to take advantage of better weather along the East Coast in case of a launch abort and emergency splashdown.
NASA limited the number of launch guests because of COVID-19, but SpaceX's next private passengers made the cut.
Tech billionaire Jared Isaacman, who's bought a three-day flight, watched the Falcon soar with the three people who will accompany him. Their capsule is still at the space station and due back on Earth with four astronauts next Wednesday. It will be refurbished in time for a September liftoff.
For Friday's automated flight, SpaceX replaced some valves and thermal shielding, and installed new parachutes on the capsule, named Endeavour after NASA's retired space shuttle. Otherwise, the spacecraft is the same vehicle that flew before.
We're thrilled to have a crew on Endeavour once again," SpaceX Launch Control radioed minutes before liftoff.
The first-stage booster aimed for a touchdown on an ocean platform nine minutes after liftoff.
Rapid reusability is critical to Musk's effort to open space to everyone, land NASA's next moonwalkers and, his loftiest goal by far, build a city on Mars.
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First Published: Fri, April 23 2021. 17:34 IST