Elon Musk’s SpaceX and NASA blasted two astronauts into orbit, marking the first human launch from U.S. soil in nearly a decade and a new partnership between industry and government aimed at revitalizing the country’s space ambitions.
Saturday’s successful blastoff—from the same launchpad at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center that sent Apollo crews to the moon during the height of the Cold War—sought to highlight American persistence and scientific know-how even as the U.S. continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
With the Saturday movement of two American astronauts in the first manned mission to outer space from U.S. soil in nearly a decade, it formally ushered in a new era of space flight in which private companies — not the government — will send humans into orbit.
Aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule are astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken, two veterans of the now-retired space shuttle program who are set for an extended stay on the International Space Station (ISS). Exactly how long they will stay has yet to be determined.
The Hill said the launch was initially scheduled for Wednesday afternoon but was scrubbed shortly before takeoff due to weather concerns, hours after Tropical Storm Bertha made landfall in South Carolina, hundreds of miles north of Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center.
For human space flights, such as the one on Saturday, weather patterns must be suitable at various points throughout the Atlantic Ocean in the event that the crew needs to abort the launch midflight in case of an emergency.
“Hopefully a great, successful and safe ROCKET LAUNCH. Lifting off soon!?!?” President Trump tweeted Saturday afternoon after traveling to Florida for a second time this week to witness the launch firsthand.
The mission from Florida’s storied Space Coast — where the U.S. launched moon missions and space shuttles for decades — was the culmination of more than 15 years of work by NASA, commercial partners and three presidential administrations.
The last time the U.S. sent astronauts to space from its own soil was in 2011, when the Space Shuttle Atlantis made its final trip to the ISS. Since then, Americans have hitched rides to the space station aboard Russian spacecraft.
After the shuttle program was retired, NASA charged SpaceX, the private space travel company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2002, with carrying astronauts into orbit. The program funding private companies’ efforts to send humans into orbit is called Commercial Crew.
Saturday’s launch was the final test for SpaceX, which was one of the companies to land contracts with NASA. The mission — dubbed Demo-2 — tests SpaceX’s crew transportation system, including the launch pad, the Crew Dragon capsule carrying the astronauts and the Falcon 9 rocket. The astronauts will also test the spacecraft’s environmental control system, control system and maneuvering thrusters.
In about 24 hours, Behnken and Hurley will rendezvous with the ISS to begin their stay on board the orbiting laboratory.
The launch was a celebratory moment for a country in the grip of a pandemic, an uncertain economic outlook and a potentially bruising presidential race. It also came amid the backdrop of protests around the country this week over the police-involved death of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis.
Speaking to reporters at a prelaunch briefing on Tuesday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine acknowledged that Americans were in need of respite after months of concern over the coronavirus outbreak.
“Our country has been through a lot,” he said. “But this is a unique moment where all of America can take a moment and look at our country do something stunning again, and that is launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”
If the mission is successful, it could lay the groundwork for a similar approach to a moon landing as soon as 2024. It would be the first manned lunar landing since 1972.
SpaceX and two other companies — Blue Origin, the private spaceflight company founded by Amazon president and CEO Jeff Bezos, and Huntsville, Ala.-based Dynetics — were awarded contracts by NASA last month to develop lunar landing systems that the agency hopes will land astronauts on the moon in less than five years.