French astronaut becomes first European to be launched in SpaceX rocket

23 April 2021, 15:29

Space X Crew Launch
Space X Crew Launch. Picture: PA

By Harriet Whitehead

French astronaut Thomas Pesquet has become the first European to blast off into space on a rocket and capsule system designed by SpaceX.

The European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut is joined by Nasa's Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur and Jaxa's (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) Akihiko Hoshide on his second mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

It is the third launch in less than a year for Nasa's Commercial Crew programme, which turned to private sector companies such as SpaceX to help bring launch capabilities back to the US after being dependent on Russia for nearly a decade.

The team launched from Launch Complex 39A at Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre in Florida at 10.49am UK time on a Falcon 9 rocket, strapped inside a Crew Dragon spacecraft.

The team launched from Launch Complex 39A
The team launched from Launch Complex 39A . Picture: PA

SpaceX is using a recycled Falcon rocket and Crew Dragon capsule for the launch.

Josef Aschbacher, the ESA's director general, described the launch as "an emotional moment" and thanked partners for their "cooperation".

He said: "As the director general of ESA, I am very happy to see Thomas now flying to the ISS. All of us at ESA are very excited to see this happening.

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"I would also like to take this opportunity to thank our partners, Nasa in particular, but also the other partners of International Space Station for their excellent cooperation which we have and which made this this flight possible.

Astronauts in the cockpit of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft after lift off
Astronauts in the cockpit of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft after lift off. Picture: PA

Mr Pesquet, who is 43-years-old, will command the ISS during the final month of his six-month mission, which will see scientific experiments carried out on the moving space laboratory.

After a 24-hour journey, the Crew Dragon is expected to dock with the space station on Saturday at 10.10am UK time.

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The astronauts of Crew-2 will join the Expedition 65 crew on board the space station, temporarily taking the total number of astronauts to 11.

The crew will replace Nasa's Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Jaxa's Soichi Noguchi, who are scheduled to return to Earth next Wednesday in another SpaceX capsule.

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For her debut mission, Ms McArthur is flying on the same seat in the same capsule as her husband, Bob Behnken, did for SpaceX's debut crew flight in May last year.

After a six-month stay, the Crew-2 astronauts will leave the ISS in October and splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

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David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at the ESA, said at the moment Mars "is only a destination for our robots" but this mission is part of the "sequence" that will take humans to Mars.

He said: "Thomas' mission is part of a sequence that is taking us on a journey that will, one day, end up with boots on Mars, the red planet.

"But right now, Mars is only a destination for our robots.

"Beyond the space station, one of the things we are doing is preparing for the return to the Moon, or going forward to the Moon, to explore it properly this time.

"So Europe is building the power propulsion for Orion - the new deep spacecraft that will take humans to the Moon. We have three seats aboard that already planned."

He added: "We will learn then on the Moon how to take that much bigger leap eventually to the surface of Mars."