A SpaceX rocket carrying two veteran NASA astronauts was headed for the International Space Station on Saturday on the first-ever crewed flight by a private company, ushering in a new era in space travel.
The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket with astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley aboard blasted off flawlessly in a cloud of bright orange flame and smoke from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center for the 19-hour voyage to the orbiting space station.
“Let’s light this candle,” Hurley, the spacecraft mission commander, told SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California, before liftoff at 3:22 pm (1922 GMT) from NASA’s fabled 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 company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk is the first commercial firm to send astronauts into orbit.
“This is a dream come true for me and everyone at SpaceX,” Musk said.
The mission, dubbed “Demo-2,” ends a government monopoly on space flight and is the final test flight before NASA certifies SpaceX’s Crew Dragon 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 at 10:29 am (1429 GMT) on Sunday.
They will join US astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner aboard the ISS.
SpaceX said Crew Dragon had successfully entered low orbit and was on the correct trajectory to link up with the space station 250 miles (450 kilometers) above the Earth.
The reusable first booster stage of the Falcon 9 rocket separated cleanly about two and a half 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 despite nationwide shutdowns caused by the coronavirus crisis and protests in several 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 aboard Air Force One to watch the launch and later delivered remarks to NASA and SpaceX employees.
Trump first addressed the protests, saying he understood “the pain people are feeling” but he would not tolerate “mob violence.”
Trump lavishly praised SpaceX founder Musk and said it was a “special day” that demonstrates a “renewed commitment to America’s future in space.”
“Today’s launch makes clear the commercial space industry is the future,” Trump said, repeating his vow to send US astronauts back to the Moon in 2024 and eventually to Mars.
Behnken and Hurley blasted off from Launch Pad 39A, the same launch pad used by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11’s 1969 journey to the Moon.
A defining moment for SpaceX
Behnken and Hurley went through the same preparations Saturday that they went through on Wednesday.
They donned their futuristic SpaceX-designed spacesuits four hours before launch.
After saying goodbye to their wives — both former astronauts — they were driven to the launch pad in an electric car built by Tesla, one of Musk’s other companies.
Behnken and Hurley, veterans of two space shuttle missions each, were in quarantine for more than two weeks and were regularly tested for COVID-19.
The Crew Dragon mission is a defining moment for SpaceX, which Musk founded in 2002 to produce a lower-cost alternative to human spaceflight.
NASA has had to pay Russia for its Soyuz rockets to take US astronauts to space ever since the shuttle program ended.
By 2012, SpaceX had become the first private company to dock a cargo capsule at the ISS, resupplying the station regularly ever since.
The US space agency paid more than $3 billion for SpaceX to design, build, test and operate its reusable Dragon capsule for six future space round-trips
SpaceX conducted a successful test flight of Crew Dragon to the ISS in March 2019 with a sensor-laden mannequin on board named Ripley, after the character played by Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” movies.
The project has experienced delays, explosions, and parachute problems — but even so, SpaceX has beaten its giant competitor Boeing to the punch.
Wednesday’s flight was scrubbed 17 minutes before blastoff because of high levels of atmospheric electricity that could have triggered a lightning strike on the rocket.