MIAMI: SpaceX became the first commercial company to launch a rocket carrying humans into orbit after two veteran NASA astronauts were headed for the International Space Station, ushering in a new era in space travel.
SpaceX’s two-stage Falcon 9 rocket with astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley aboard blasted off in a cloud of bright orange flames and smoke from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center for a 19-hour voyage to the space station.
“Let’s light this candle,” Hurley, the mission commander, told SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California, before liftoff from NASA’s storied Launch Pad 39A.
The SpaceX launch is the first of American astronauts from US soil since the space shuttle program ended in 2011 and the first crewed flight ever by a private company.
“I’m really quite overcome with emotion,” Musk said. “It’s been 18 years working towards this goal. This is hopefully the first step on a journey towards civilization on Mars,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said it was a “great day” for NASA and SpaceX and an “important milestone for the nation”. “We’re not celebrating yet,” Bridenstine cautioned. “We will celebrate when they’re home safely.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 31, 2020
In a brief interview from space, Hurley said that in keeping with the tradition of having astronauts name their spacecraft, he and Behnken had named the Crew Dragon capsule ‘Endeavour’ after the retired space shuttle on which they both flew. The mission, dubbed ‘Demo-2’ ends a government monopoly on space flight and is the final test flight before NASA certifies SpaceX’s capsule for regular crewed missions.
Behnken, 49, and Hurley, 53, former military test pilots who joined NASA in 2000, are scheduled to dock with the space station on Sunday. They will join US astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner aboard the ISS.
SpaceX said Crew Dragon was on the correct trajectory to link up with the space station orbiting 250 miles above the Earth. The reusable first booster stage of the Falcon 9 rocket separated cleanly about 2.5 minutes after liftoff and landed upright on a floating barge off the Atlantic coast. The second stage also separated smoothly.
The launch had originally been scheduled for Wednesday but was delayed because of weather conditions, which also remained uncertain on Saturday right up until liftoff. The mission comes amid the coronavirus crisis and protests in multiple US cities over the death of a black man in Minneapolis while he was being arrested by a white police officer.
President Donald Trump flew to Florida to watch the launch and delivered remarks to NASA and SpaceX employees on what he called a “special day.” Trump praised Musk and said the launch “makes clear the commercial space industry is the future.” He also repeated his vow to send American astronauts back to the Moon in 2024 and eventually to Mars.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 30, 2020