SpaceX has launched four astronauts to the International Space Station on the first full-fledged taxi flight for Nasa by a private company.

The Falcon rocket thundered into the night from Kennedy Space Center in Florida with three Americans and one Japanese onboard, the second crew to be launched by SpaceX. The Dragon capsule on top – named Resilience by its crew in light of this year’s many challenges, most notably Covid-19 – is due to reach the space station after 27-and-a-half hours and remain there until spring.

SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk was forced to monitor the action from afar after being sidelined by the virus. He tweeted that he “most likely” had a moderate case of Covid-19. Nasa policy at Kennedy Space Center requires anyone testing positive for coronavirus to quarantine and remain isolated.

Sunday’s launch comes just a few months after a two-pilot test flight by SpaceX and kicks off what Nasa hopes will be a long series of crew rotations between the US and the space station, after years of delay. More people means more science research at the orbiting lab, officials said.