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Liftoff! Astronauts Head To Space Station On SpaceX Rocket

Four astronauts are scheduled to head to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule.
Four astronauts are scheduled to head to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule.

Four astronauts are set to lift off Sunday night from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard a SpaceX rocket bound for the International Space Station.

The crewed flight will be the second for SpaceX's Dragon capsule and the first since NASA officially certified the small spacecraft to carry people. Aboard will be NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Victor Glover, along with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

"As a crew, we are ready," said Hopkins, the mission commander, in a press conference last week. "We are ready for this launch, we are ready for the six months of work that is waiting for us on board the International Space Station, and we are ready for the return."

The Dragon is a relatively new ride for astronauts. Its first crewed flight took place in May, when Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken launched on a jaunt to the station. They stayed for roughly two months before returning to earth and splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico in early August.

That flight was the first launch of American astronauts from American soil since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. Following the shuttle's retirement, NASA spent the better part of a decade paying the Russian space agency for seats aboard its Soyuz rockets. It hopes the Dragon can end that dependence by providing an American-made system to get astronauts into low earth orbit. This mission, known as "Crew-1", is supposed to be the first of many routine flights that will ferry astronauts to and from the station.

Unlike the Soyuz, which has room for three crew members, the Dragon can carry up to seven passengers into orbit, according to the company. While the design fundamentally resembles older spacecraft like the Apollo capsules used to reach the moon, Dragon sports some modern upgrades such as a sleek white interior and touch-screen control panels.

The arrival of four astronauts to the station will bring the total crew to seven. Normally the ISS is staffed with anywhere from three to six crew members, and space will be tight. Hopkins said he will likely have to make do with the capsule as his bedroom for the duration of the mission.

The extra crew will help NASA to conduct more scientific research aboard the station, Hopkins said. "I think they're going to keep us pretty busy."

Liftoff is set for 7:27 p.m. and the flight to the station will take roughly 28 hours. Docking will occur Monday evening around 11 p.m. and will be televised by NASA TV.

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Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.