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SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station from Florida on Wednesday evening, as the company keeps up a steady pace of crewed missions. Known as Crew-3, the mission for NASA will bring the quartet to the ISS for a six-month stay in orbit on the research laboratory. SpaceX launched the astronauts in its Crew Dragon capsule on top of a Falcon 9 rocket. “It was a great ride – better than we imagined,” NASA astronaut and Crew Dragon commander Raja Chari told mission control after the launch.
The launch is SpaceX’s third operational crew launch for NASA to date, and the first by the latest addition to its fleet of Crew Dragon capsules, named Endurance by the Crew-3 astronauts. The Crew-3 mission brings the number of astronauts SpaceX has launched to 18. The mission carries three Americans and one German: NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer. This is the first spaceflight for three of the crew: Chari, Barron and Maurer. SpaceX developed its Crew Dragon spacecraft and fine-tuned its Falcon 9 rocket under NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which provided the company with $3.1 billion to develop the system and launch six operational missions. Commercial Crew is a competitive program, and NASA also awarded Boeing with $4.8 billion in contracts to develop its Starliner spacecraft. Boeing’s capsule, however, remains in development due to an uncrewed flight test in December 2019 that experienced significant challenges. Crew-3 represents the third of those six missions for SpaceX, with NASA now benefiting from the investment it made in the company’s spacecraft development. NASA emphasizes that, in addition to the U.S. having a way to send astronauts to space, SpaceX offers the agency a cost-saving option as well. The agency expects to pay $55 million per astronaut to fly with Crew Dragon, as opposed to $86 million per astronaut to fly on a Russian spacecraft. NASA last year estimated that having two private companies compete for contracts saved the agency between $20 billion and $30 billion in development costs.