Four astronauts from Denmark, Japan, Russia and the US took off from the Kennedy Space Centre on Saturday making their way to the International Space Station.
The flight marks the first time a US-based launch has filled every seat on a spacecraft with passengers of different nationalities. Until now, NASA had always included two or three of its own on its SpaceX flights. A fluke in timing led to the assignments, officials said.
“We're a united team with a common mission,” NASA's Jasmin Moghbeli radioed while in orbit.
Moghbeli, a marine pilot serving as commander, is joined on the six-month mission by the European Space Agency’s Andreas Mogensen from Denmark, Japan’s Satoshi Furukawa and Russia’s Konstantin Borisov.
“To explore space, we need to do it together,” the European Space Agency's director general, Josef Aschbacher, said minutes before liftoff. “Space is really global, and international cooperation is key.”
The astronauts' paths to space couldn’t be more different.
Moghbeli’s parents fled Iran during the 1979 revolution. Born in Germany and raised on New York’s Long Island, she joined the marines and flew attack helicopters in Afghanistan. The first-time space traveller hopes to show Iranian girls that they, too, can aim high. “Belief in yourself is something really powerful,” she said before the flight.
Following a path in engineering, Morgensen worked on oil rigs off the West African coast. He told people puzzled by his job choice that “in the future we would need drillers in space” like Bruce Willis' character in the killer asteroid film “Armageddon." He’s convinced the rig experience led to his selection as Denmark’s first astronaut.
Furukawa spent a decade as a surgeon before making Japan’s astronaut cut. Like Mogensen, he’s visited the station before.
Borisov, a space rookie, turned to engineering after studying business. He runs a freediving school in Moscow and judges the sport, in which divers shun oxygen tanks and hold their breath underwater.
SpaceX's first-stage booster returned to Cape Canaveral several minutes after liftoff, an extra treat for the thousands of spectators gathered in the early-morning darkness.
Liftoff was delayed by a day for additional data reviews of valves in the capsule's life-support system. The countdown almost was halted again Saturday after a tiny fuel leak cropped up in the capsule's thruster system. SpaceX engineers managed to verify the leak would pose no threat with barely two minutes remaining on the clock, said Benji Reed, the company's senior director for human spaceflight.
Another NASA astronaut will fly to the station from Kazakhstan in mid-September.
SpaceX has now launched eight crews for NASA. Boeing was hired at the same time nearly a decade ago but has yet to fly astronauts.