SpaceX launches two astronauts to orbit, igniting new spaceflight era.
The United States opened a new era of human space travel on Saturday as a private company for the first time launched astronauts into orbit, nearly a decade after the government retired the storied space shuttle program in the aftermath of national tragedy.
Two American astronauts lifted off at 3:22 p.m. from a familiar setting, the same Florida launchpad that once served Apollo missions and the space shuttles. But the rocket and capsule that lofted them out of the atmosphere were a new sight for many — built and operated not by NASA but SpaceX, the company founded by the billionaire Elon Musk to pursue his dream of sending colonists to Mars.
Crowds of spectators including President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence watched and cheered as the countdown ticked to zero, and the engines of a Falcon 9 rocket roared to life.
Rising slowly at first, the rocket then shot like a sleek, silvery javelin into cloudy, humid skies, three days after Florida’s weather had precluded an earlier launch attempt.
It was a moment of triumph and perhaps nostalgia for the country, a welcome reminder of America’s global pre-eminence in science, technological innovation and private enterprise at a time its prospects and ambitions have been clouded by the coronavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty and political strife. Millions around the world watched the launch online and on television, many from self-imposed quarantine in their homes.
Mr. Trump, who watched from a rooftop at the space center along with Mr. Mike Pence and a bevy of administration officials and Republican politicians, called it “an inspiration for our country” and a “beautiful sight” after the ship lifted off. “I’m so proud of the people at NASA, all the people that worked together, public and private,” he told reporters.
The Falcon 9 carried a Crew Dragon capsule, which was scheduled to rendezvous with the International Space Station on Sunday morning.
Aboard are two veterans of the astronauts corps, Robert L. Behnken and Douglas O. Hurley. Each is married to another astronaut — Mr. Behnken to Megan McArthur and Mr. Hurley to Karen Nyberg. NASA selected the two men along with a group of their colleagues to be the first customers of space capsules built by private companies.
It was the first launch of NASA astronauts from the United States since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011. In the years since, NASA has paid Russia’s space program to transport its astronauts to the space station. And with this success, NASA, to its own delight, has begun ceding this task to SpaceX and other companies, and it opens new possibilities for entrepreneurs looking to make money off the planet.
As a bonus for the good start to the mission, the booster stage successfully landed on a floating platform in the Atlantic, now a routine feat for SpaceX.
Who is blasting off?
The astronauts are Robert L. Behnken and Douglas G. Hurley, who have been friends and colleagues since both were selected by NASA to be astronauts in 2000.
They both have backgrounds as military test pilots and have each flown twice previously on space shuttle missions, although this is the first time they have worked together on a mission. Mr. Hurley flew on the space shuttle’s final mission in 2011.
In 2015, they were among the astronauts chosen to work with Boeing and SpaceX on the commercial space vehicles that the companies were developing. In 2018, they were assigned to the first SpaceX flight.
Saturday’s launch preparations began with the astronauts donning their spacesuits with the assistance of SpaceX technicians. Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, and Jim Morhard, the deputy administrator, visited them in the suit-up room. Each kept a social distance and wore a surgical mask, and Mr. Bridenstine posed with the astronauts for a selfie.
Just after noon, the astronauts were seen off by their families ahead of their drive to the launchpad. Mr. Behnken asked his son, Theodore, “Are you going to listen to mommy and make her life easy,” referring to his wife, Megan McArthur, a fellow astronaut. The six-year-old replied, “Let’s light this candle!”
Within the hour, they had boarded the Crew Dragon capsule and started the hours of procedures they must complete before the launch attempt.
What are they flying in?
SpaceX has never taken people to space before. Its Crew Dragon is a gumdrop-shaped capsule — an upgraded version of SpaceX’s original Dragon capsule, which has been used many times to carry cargo, but not people, to the space station.
Crew Dragon has space for up to seven people but will have only four seats for NASA missions. If this launch succeeds, it will ferry four astronauts to the space station later in the year.