SpaceX successfully launches US astronauts into space

The launch marks the very first time in history that a private company, rather than a national government, has sent astronauts into orbit

The Falcon 9 rocket, lifting off successfuly at 3:22pm

Two veteran NASA astronauts were headed for the International Space Station on Saturday after Elon Musk's SpaceX became the first commercial company to launch a rocket carrying humans into orbit, ushering in a new era in commercial space travel and putting the United States back in the business of launching astronauts into orbit from US soil for the first time in nearly a decade.

NASA’s Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken rode skyward aboard a sleek, white-and-black, bullet-shaped Dragon capsule on top of a Falcon 9 rocket, lifting off at 3:22 p.m. from the same launch pad from which the Apollo 11 astronauts launched to the moon in 1969. Pad 39A also hosted 82 of the 135 space shuttle launches, including the first and final ones. 

“Let’s light this candle,” Hurley said just before ignition, borrowing the words used by Alan Shepard on America’s first human spaceflight, in 1961.

We are now waiting for the two men to arrive at the International Space Station on Sunday for a stay of up to four months, after which they will return to Earth in a Right Stuff-style splashdown at sea. 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). They will join US astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner aboard the ISS.

But one thing is sure, with the on-time liftoff, SpaceX, founded by Musk, the Tesla electric-car visionary, became the first private company to launch people into orbit, a feat achieved previously by only three governments: the US, Russia and China. The Demo-2 mission also ended a nine-year launch drought for NASA, the longest such hiatus in its history. Ever since it retired the space shuttle in 2011, NASA has relied on Russian spaceships launched from Kazakhstan to take US astronauts to and from the space station.

Additionally, shortly after launching the Hurley and Behnken into orbit, SpaceX also notched another rocket landing under its belt. The Falcon 9 booster's first stage made a smooth landing on SpaceX's drone ship Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic Ocean. 

"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," the SpaceX founder said.

The mission unfolded amid the gloom of the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed over 100,000 Americans, and racial unrest across the US over the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police. NASA officials and others held out hope the flight would be a morale-booster.

“Maybe there’s an opportunity here for America to maybe pause and look up and see a bright, shining moment of hope at what the future looks like, that the United States of America can do extraordinary things even in difficult times,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said before launch.

Meanwhile, 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." The president 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.

The flight is the latest milestone for NASA’s commercial crew program, a partnership between the agency, the privately held company known as SpaceX and Boeing. The US space agency paid more than $3bn for SpaceX to design, build, test and operate its reusable Dragon capsule for six future space round trips.

The first attempt on Wednesday was scrubbed at the last minute due to bad weather.

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