Elon Musk SpaceX launches another astronaut crew to the International Space Station..

Four more astronauts blasted into orbit Wednesday, continuing a historic year of human spaceflight in which a diverse array of people have flown on several different spacecraft to varying parts of the increasingly popular neighborhood just outside Earths atmosphere.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 9:03 p.m. Eastern time, carrying a crew of four, including three NASA astronauts and one European, on what is expected to be a 22-hour journey to the International Space Station, where they are to stay for about six months.

The launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was the fifth time that SpaceX has flown humans to orbit and the fourth time it has done so under its contract with NASA. In September, it flew four civilians in what was called the Inspiration4 mission – a three-day flight in the SpaceX Dragon capsule that circled the globe every 90 minutes.

The launch came less than 48 hours after SpaceX had returned the previous astronaut crew from the space station to a picture-perfect splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico – evidence that SpaceX is gaining prowess in multiple aspects of its role as NASA’s primary way to transport goods and people to the space station.

After reaching orbit, NASA astronaut Raja Chari told mission control that, “it was a great ride. Better than we expected.

The SpaceX launch director told the crew, which will continue the mission on Veterans Day: “It was a pleasure to be part of this mission with you. Enjoy your holiday amongst the stars. We’ll be waving as you fly by.”

The flight comes as a number of companies are working to fly private citizens to space – from the actor William Shatner, 90, who became the oldest person to reach the edge of space, to Oliver Daemen, a student from the Netherlands, who at 18 became the youngest.

Wednesday’s launch, dubbed Crew-3, is commanded by Chari, an Air Force colonel and test pilot who is making his first trip to space. He was joined by Kayla Barron, a Navy lieutenant commander who served on a nuclear submarine, Tom Marshburn, a physician who has flown to space twice before, once on the space shuttle and once on the Russia Soyuz, and European astronaut Matthias Maurer, an engineer from Germany. It is also Barron’s and Maurer’s first trip to space.

The three rookies became the 599th, 600th and 601st people to fly past the 50-mile edge of space, NASA said. The list of space travelers is growing in part because of the efforts of Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which take paying customers just past the edge of space in suborbital trips that fly up and then fall back down to Earth.

Russia continues to fly astronauts on its Soyuz spacecraft and recently said that it would allow its cosmonauts to fly on SpaceX Dragon capsules. China also is flying humans and recently sent up a crew of three to the space station it is assembling in Earth orbit. And NASA’s Orion spacecraft is scheduled to launch early next year without any astronauts onboard on a trip that would go around the moon in preparation for a human landing, perhaps as soon as 2025 under a new schedule NASA announced on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Boeing is working to develop a spacecraft that would fly astronauts to the space station as part of NASA’s “commercial crew” program. But its program has suffered through all sorts of problems and delays. On a test flight without astronauts at the end of 2019, the spacecraft suffered a software problem that forced controllers to truncate the mission and forgo a docking with the station.

Boeing decided to redo the test flight and take a charge of $410 million.

Then over the summer, the Starliner capsule suffered another problem ahead of that do-over, this time with valves that remained stuck in the service module. The flight never got off, and Boeing said last month that it would take another charge, this time of $185 million, to cover the costs of the delay.

During a news conference last month, John Vollmer, Boeing’s program manager for the commercial crew program, declined to say how much the problem would cost the company. But he said “NASA would not bear any responsibility for those costs that are within scope of our contract. . . . So, we’re not expecting any charge to the government from that side.” He added that the company would not back away from the program as a result of the additional costs. “We are 100 percent committed to fulfilling our contract with the government, and we intend to do that,” he said.

As it continues to solidify its status as NASA’s premier human spaceflight partner, SpaceX, the California company founded by Elon Musk, is also working toward flying more private citizens. It has a mission commissioned by Axiom Space, a Houston-based company, set to take three civilians and a former NASA astronaut, who would serve as their guide, to the space station for about a week.

As those efforts continue, many believe the ranks of space farers will increase dramatically.

“Six hundred in 60 years, it makes for 10 people per year,” Maurer said during a preflight news conference. “But I think in the next few years, we’ll see an exponential rise. Now we’re entering the era for commercial spaceflight.”

Before SpaceX flew its first test flight with a pair of NASA astronauts last year, the space agency had spent nearly a decade after the space shuttle was retired paying for seats on the Russia Soyuz.

Today, with SpaceX, “there are more flight opportunities” for NASA astronauts, said Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut and a professor at the University of Southern California’s school of engineering. “One of the positive impacts is fewer people having to train over in Russia. That was a major strain and stress on families.”

The Crew-3 mission is slated to dock with the space station at 7:10 p.m. Eastern time Thursday. While onboard the orbiting laboratory, the astronauts will be conducting what NASA says is “new and exciting scientific research in areas such as materials science, health technologies, and plant science to prepare for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit and benefit life on Earth.

Aboard the capsule are NASA astronauts Raja Chari, an Air Force colonel and test pilot who is making his first trip to space; Kayla Barron, a Navy lieutenant commander who served on a nuclear submarine, who is also making her first trip to space; Tom Marshburn, a physician who has flown to space twice before, once on the space shuttle and once on the Russia Soyuz, and European astronaut Matthias Maurer, another space rookie who is an engineer from Germany.

The capsule is a new addition to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon fleet and has never flown to space before. It’s been named Endurance.

One critical adjustment has been to this spacecraft: a tube that carries urine to a storage tank has been welded in place. The change was made after technicians discovered on another spacecraft that the tube had pulled away from the tank, allowing urine to collect under the spacecraft’s floor.

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