SpaceX Rocket Blasts Off with Two Americans, Bound for the International Space Station

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(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

A rocket built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company thundered away from Earth with two Americans this afternoon, ushering in a new era of commercial space travel and putting NASA back in the business of launching astronauts from U.S. soil for the first time in nearly a decade.

NASA’s Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are aboard a capsule on top of a Falcon 9 rocket, lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, from the same launch pad used to send the Apollo astronauts to the moon a half-century ago.

Minutes later, they safely entered orbit.

“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.

The two men are scheduled 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 splashdown at sea.

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 U.S., Russia and China.

The flight 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 U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.

In the intervening years, NASA outsourced the job of designing and building its next generation of spaceships to SpaceX and Boeing, awarding them $7 billion in contracts in a public-private partnership aimed at driving down costs and spurring innovation.

Boeing’s spaceship, the Starliner capsule, is not expected to fly astronauts until early 2021.

Musk said earlier in the week that the project is aimed at “reigniting the dream of space and getting people fired up about the future.”

Ultimately, NASA hopes to rely in part on its commercial partners as it works to send astronauts back to the moon in the next few years, and on to Mars in the 2030s.

Inside Kennedy Space Center, attendance was strictly limited because of the coronavirus, and the small crowd of a few thousand was a shadow of what it would have been without the threat of COVID-19.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence flew in for the event for the second time in four days.

By NASA’s count, over 3 million viewers tuned in online.

Hurley, a 53-year-old retired Marine, and Behnken, 49, an Air Force colonel, are veterans of two space shuttle flights each. Hurley piloted the space shuttle on the last launch of astronauts from Kennedy, on July 8, 2011.

In keeping with Musk’s penchant for futuristic flash, the astronauts wore angular white uniforms with black trim. Instead of the usual multitude of dials, knobs and switches, the Dragon capsule has three large touchscreens.

SpaceX has been launching cargo capsules to the space station since 2012. In preparation for Wednesday’s flight, SpaceX sent up a Dragon capsule with only a test dummy aboard last year, and it docked smoothly at the orbiting outpost on autopilot, then returned to Earth in a splashdown.

During the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and shuttle programs, NASA relied on aerospace contractors to build spacecraft according to the agency’s designs. NASA owned and operated the ships.

Under the new, 21st-century partnership, aerospace companies design, build, own and operate the spaceships, and NASA is essentially a paying customer on a list that could eventually include non-government researchers, artists and tourists. (Tom Cruise has already expressed interest.)

The first human flight was originally targeted for around 2015. But NASA’s commercial crew program encountered bureaucratic delays and technical setbacks.

A SpaceX capsule exploded on the test stand last year. Boeing’s first Starliner capsule ended up in the wrong orbit during an crew-less test flight in December and was nearly destroyed at the mission’s end. Both companies had trouble with such things as the landing parachutes.

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