Two veteran NASA astronauts headed for the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday after Elon Musk’s SpaceX on Saturday became the first commercial company to launch a rocket carrying humans into orbit, 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 flawlessly in a cloud of bright orange flames and smoke from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, 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 at 3:22pm from NASA’s storied Launch Pad 39A.
Photo: Retuers / NASA / Bill Ingalls
The SpaceX launch is the first of US astronauts from US soil since NASA’s space shuttle program ended in 2011 and the first crewed flight ever by a private company.
“I’m really quite overcome with emotion,” SpaceX founder Musk said. “It’s been 18 years working towards this goal.”
“This is hopefully the first step on a journey towards civilization on Mars,” he 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 said. “We will celebrate when they’re home safely.”
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.
Behnken said the SpaceX capsule is a “lot different than its namesake” in that “it has touch display screens.”
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, were scheduled to dock with the ISS late last night, where they were to join US astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.
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.
US 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 first addressed the protests, saying he understood “the pain people are feeling” but that he would not tolerate “mob violence.”
Trump praised Musk and said the launch “makes clear the commercial space industry is the future.”
He also repeated his vow to send US astronauts back to the moon in 2024 and eventually to Mars.
Behnken and Hurley, veterans of two space shuttle missions each, were in quarantine for more than two weeks ahead of the flight and were regularly tested for COVID-19.
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.
NASA paid more than US$3 billion for SpaceX to design, build, test and operate its reusable Dragon capsule for six future space round trips. NASA has had to pay Russia for its Soyuz rockets to take US astronauts to space ever since the shuttle program ended.
Russia’s space agency Roscosmos yesterday congratulated SpaceX over its successful launch.
“I would like to greet our American colleagues,” cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, Roscosmos executive director for crewed space programs, said in a brief video address on Twitter. “The success of the mission will provide us with additional opportunities that will benefit the whole international program.”
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