Four astronauts are cruising to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX capsule in the company’s first crewed trip with previously flown equipment.

The Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the orbiting lab early Saturday, slightly more than 23 hours after blasting off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:49 a.m. U.S. East Coast time. The capsule was performing as expected in orbit Friday about 125 miles (201 kilometers) above Earth. The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket landed on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

“We wish you a great mission,” SpaceX launch engineer Jack Healy told the crew minutes before liftoff. “Good luck and enjoy the ride.”

The voyage on a capsule and rocket that have flown before marks another milestone for Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s success at pioneering reusability in the launch business. Founder Elon Musk has championed the goal of designing spacecraft for multiple missions as the only practical and economical method to lower launch costs and expand human exploration -- specifically to Mars.

“Flight-proven” rockets and capsules have demonstrated their ability, Musk said Thursday on a webcast with Peter Diamandis, creator of the XPrize Foundation and a fellow space enthusiast.

“Do you want to be on the first flight of the airplane when it comes out of the factory or do you want to be on a later flight?” Musk said. “It should be, on balance, better” with each flight, he said.

Earlier Use

The Dragon capsule on Friday’s mission had already taken two astronauts to and from the space station last year on SpaceX’s first crewed test flight for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Falcon 9 rocket on the latest flight last flew in November to carry four astronauts to the space station for SpaceX’s first regular ferry trip for NASA, a mission known as Crew-1.

On April 28, SpaceX is scheduled to bring back the four crewmembers from the November flight, with a splashdown off the Florida coast. The company’s next mission to the station is tentatively set for October.

Last year, NASA agreed to allow its space station crew rotations to be conducted on previously flown equipment.

Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, applauded the agency’s close partnership with SpaceX in recent years. Last week, the agency selected SpaceX to land astronauts on the moon as part of the Artemis program.

The flight on Friday is “the third launch in less than a year after almost a 10-year gap in launching astronauts on U.S. rockets from U.S. soil,” he said after the launch.

‘How Far’

SpaceX has flown another one of its Falcon 9 rockets nine times without people, and its Dragon capsule is certified for as many as five flights. The Hawthorne, California-based company is keen to learn how many times a Falcon 9 can fly, although its crewed launches won’t be part of those tests.

“We’re pushing that for non-human missions,” Benji Reed, SpaceX’s senior director of human spaceflight, said at an April 20 briefing. “We want to see how far we can go.”

The NASA Crew-2 mission is commanded by Shane Kimbrough, 53, a retired U.S. Army colonel, helicopter pilot and father of three, who is taking his third trip to space. The crew is expected to return to Earth in late October. Three other astronauts are on board:

  • Pilot Megan McArthur, 49, an oceanographer selected by NASA as an astronaut in 2000. She flew on the final mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope in May 2009. McArthur is married to Bob Behnken, who flew on the same Dragon vehicle during SpaceX’s last test flight for NASA to the space station. The couple has a son.
  • Mission specialist Akihiko Hoshide, 52, an astronaut from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, who has flown to space twice, in 2008 and 2012.
  • Thomas Pesquet, a former Air France pilot who joined the European Space Agency as an astronaut in 2009. Pesquet, a 43-year-old native of Rouen, France, spent six months aboard the space station from November 2016 to June 2017.

The Commercial Crew Program is a keystone of NASA’s effort to contract with private companies where possible for astronaut and cargo transport, along with other services.

In 2014, NASA awarded upstart SpaceX and Boeing Co. a combined US$6.8 billion in contracts to revive the U.S.’s ability to fly to the orbiting lab without buying seats on Russian Soyuz capsules. A second test flight of Boeing’s Starliner vehicle, without a crew, is set for later this year after a botched mission in December 2019.

Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets, and NASA has been a key partner and customer. A cargo version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule makes regular runs to the space station.