CAPE CANAVERAL (Florida) • SpaceX, the private rocket company of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, has launched two Americans into orbit from Florida in a mission marking the first space flight of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) astronauts from US soil in nine years.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Centre at 3.22pm Eastern Daylight Time last Saturday, launching astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on a 19-hour ride aboard the newly designed Crew Dragon capsule bound for the International Space Station (ISS).
Just before liftoff, Mr Hurley said “SpaceX, we’re go for launch. Let’s light this candle”, paraphrasing the famous comment uttered on the launch pad in 1961 by astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American flown into space.
Minutes after launch, the first-stage booster rocket of the Falcon 9 separated from the upper second-stage rocket and flew itself back to Earth to land on a platform floating in the Atlantic Ocean. High above Earth, the Crew Dragon jettisoned moments later from the second-stage rocket, sending the capsule on its way to the space station.
The capsule docked at the space station yesterday.
The exhilarating spectacle of the rocket soaring flawlessly into the heavens came as a welcome triumph for a nation in the grip of racially charged civil unrest as well as ongoing fear and economic upheaval from the coronavirus pandemic.
The Falcon 9 took off from the same launch pad used by Nasa’s final space shuttle flight, piloted by Mr Hurley, in 2011. Since then, Nasa astronauts have had to hitch rides into orbit aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
“It’s incredible, the power, the technology,” said President Donald Trump, who was at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida’s Cape Canaveral for the launch. “That was a beautiful sight to see.”
The mission’s first launch attempt last Wednesday was called off. Weather again threatened Saturday’s launch, but it cleared in time to proceed with the mission.
Nasa chief Jim Bridenstine has said resuming launches of American astronauts on American-made rockets from US soil is the space agency’s top priority. He added: “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.”
For Mr Musk, the launch represents another milestone for the reusable rockets his company has pioneered to make space flights less costly and more frequent. And it marks the first time commercially developed space vehicles – owned and operated by a private entity rather than Nasa – have carried Americans into orbit.
The last time Nasa launched astronauts into space aboard a new vehicle was 40 years ago, at the start of the space shuttle programme.
Mr Musk, the South African-born high-tech entrepreneur who made his fortune in Silicon Valley, is also chief executive of electric carmaker and battery manufacturer Tesla.
NOT CELEBRATING YET
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.
NASA CHIEF JIM BRIDENSTINE, on the two astronauts onboard the first space flight launched from US soil in nine years.
He founded the Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX in 2002.
Mr Hurley, 53, and Mr Behnken, 49, Nasa employees under contract to fly with SpaceX, are expected to remain at the space station for several weeks, aiding a short-handed crew aboard the orbital laboratory.
Boeing, which is producing its own launch system in competition with SpaceX, is expected to fly its CST-100 Starliner vehicle with astronauts aboard for the first time next year.
Nasa has awarded nearly US$8 billion (S$11.3 billion) in combined contracts to SpaceX and Boeing for development of their rival rockets.
Mr Trump also hailed the launch as a major advance towards the goal of eventually sending humans to Mars. He was joined at the viewing by Mr Musk, as well as Vice-President Mike Pence, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Florida congressman Matt Gaetz and Republican Senator Rick Scott.