SpaceX, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s private aerospace manufacturer and space transportation company, on Saturday launched two National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronauts into orbit from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, AFP reported.
This marked the first spaceflight of NASA astronauts from American soil in nine years and the first time in history that a private aerospace firm has carried humans into the Earth’s orbit.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with American astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley aboard, lifted off from the launchpad on schedule at 3.22 pm (around 12:52 am Indian Standard Time) for a 19-hour ride as the Crew Dragon capsule slowly maneuvers its way towards the International Space Station.
Minutes after the launch, the reusable first-stage booster rocket of the Falcon 9 separated cleanly and landed upright on a floating barge off the Atlantic coast. The second stage also separated smoothly, sending the capsule on its way to the space station.
“This is a dream come true for me and everyone at SpaceX,” Musk said. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, and Vice President Mike Pence attended the historic launch.
“Past leaders put the US at the mercy of foreign nations to send our astronauts into orbit,” the president said. “Not anymore. Today we once again proudly launched American astronauts on American rockets – the best in the world – from right here on American soil.”
Trump praised Musk and said it was a “special day” that demonstrates a “renewed commitment to America’s future in space”.
NASA chief Jim Bridenstine said resuming launches of American astronauts from US soil will be the space agency’s top priority. “I’m breathing a sigh of relief, but I will also tell you I’m not gonna celebrate until Bob and Doug are home safely,” he added.
The launch was initially scheduled for Wednesday but was postponed due to bad weather. The United States has not launched its own astronauts into space since the Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011. Since then, NASA has had to pay Russia for its Soyuz rockets to take US astronauts to space. It paid more than $3 billion for SpaceX to design, build, test and operate its reusable capsule for six future space round trips.