MERRITT ISLAND, Florida – A rocket ship built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company thundered away from Earth with two Americans on Saturday, 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 rode skyward aboard a sleek, white-and-black, bullet-shaped Dragon capsule on top of a Falcon 9 rocket, lifting off from the same launch pad used to send the Apollo astronauts to the moon a half-century ago. The flight had been delayed three days because of stormy weather in Florida.
“Let's light this candle,” Hurley said, 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 Right Stuff-style splashdown at sea.
The mission unfolded amid the gloom of the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed over 100,000 Americans, and racial unrest across the U.S. over the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police. NASA officials and others held out hope the flight would would be a morale-booster.
“Maybe there’s an opportunity here for America to maybe pause and look up and see a bright, shining moment of hope at what the future looks like, that the United States of America can do extraordinary things even in difficult times,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said before launch.
With the on-time 3:22 p.m. liftoff, SpaceX, founded by Musk, the Tesla electric-car visionary, became the first private company to launch people toward/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.
Before setting out for the launch pad in a gull-wing Tesla SUV — another Musk product — Behnken pantomimed a hug of his 6-year-old son, Theo, and said: “Are you going to listen to Mommy and make her life easy?” Hurley blew kisses to his 10-year-old son and wife.
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.
Despite NASA’s insistence that the public stay safe by staying home, spectators gathered along beaches and roads hours in advance.
Among them was Neil Wight, a machinist from Buffalo, New York, who staked out a view of the launch pad from a park in Titusville.
“It’s pretty historically significant in my book, and a lot of other people’s books. With everything that’s going on in this country right now, it’s important that we do things extraordinary in life,” Wight said. “We’ve been bombarded with doom and gloom for the last six, eight weeks, whatever it is, and this is awesome. It brings a lot of people together.”
The astronauts were kept in quasi-quarantine for more than two months before liftoff. The SpaceX technicians who helped them get into their spacesuits wore masks and gloves that made them look like black-clad ninjas. And at the launch center, the SpaceX controllers were seated far apart.
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.)
“What Elon Musk has done for the American space program is he has brought vision and inspiration that we hadn’t had” since the shuttle’s retirement in 2011, Bridenstine said on the eve of launch. He called the SpaceX chief “brilliant” and said Musk has “absolutely delivered” for NASA.
The mission is technically considered by SpaceX and NASA to be a test flight. The next SpaceX voyage to the space station, set for the end of August, will have a full, four-person crew: three Americans and one Japanese.
Wednesday’s 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 a 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.
2:33 p.m. -- Falcon 9 booster has landed
Falcon 9 booster has successfully landed.
Falcon 9 booster has landed on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship! pic.twitter.com/96Nd3vsrT2— SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 30, 2020
2:22 p.m. -- We have successfully launched
Astronauts have successfully lifted off in historic SpaceX and NASA launch.
For the first time in 9 years, we have now launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. I'm so proud of the @NASA and @SpaceX team for making this moment possible. #LaunchAmerica https://t.co/XiqPAj6Saa— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) May 30, 2020
2:15 p.m. -- Astronaut Doug Hurley speaks before launch
Hurley says he is honored to be a part of this historic effort as the crew begins to launch, and he’ll talk to us from orbit.
"It is absolutely our honor to be part of this huge effort to get the United States back in the launch business. We'll talk to you from orbit." — @Astro_Doug is ready to #LaunchAmerica: pic.twitter.com/XmBbf69kUc— NASA (@NASA) May 30, 2020
2:11 p.m. -- Fuel completely loaded in second stage
2:07 p.m. -- Liquid oxygen begins loading into rocket
Liquid oxygen has begun loading into the rocket. We are getting closer and closer to liftoff at 3:22 p.m.
1:55 p.m. -- Propellant loading now
Liquid oxygen and RP-1, typically referred to as rocket fuel, will fill the first and second stages of Falcon 9. This will continue until approximately two minutes before liftoff.
⛽️Propellant loading now⛽️— Johnson Space Center (@NASA_Johnson) May 30, 2020
Liquid oxygen and RP-1, a highly refined, rocket-grade kerosene, typically referred to as rocket fuel, will fill the 1st and 2nd stages of Falcon 9. This will continue until approx. 2 minutes before liftoff of #LaunchAmerica. pic.twitter.com/1lYrqppwyB
1:45 p.m. -- Crew arms launch escape system
The Launch America Crew is arming the launch escape system, which gives them the ability to safely escape from the time of launch to orbit.
Safety first and foremost.— NASA (@NASA) May 30, 2020
The #LaunchAmerica crew is arming the launch escape system, which gives the crew the ability to safely escape from the time of launch all the way to orbit. pic.twitter.com/Y56pn0KZ6a
1:34 p.m. -- Weather a ‘go’ for launch Saturday
After a poll, officials announced the weather is good for launch. Weather forecasters are cautiously optimistic and NASA will continue to monitor weather conditions.
1:27 p.m. -- Behnken, Hurley say they’re prepared for launch, awaiting weather updates
With less than an hour away from liftoff, astronauts Behnken and Hurley said they’re prepared for launch and are awaiting weather updates. Officials said weather conditions have been improving.
12:43 p.m. -- Liftoff currently a ‘no-go’ due to weather
As of now, officials said liftoff is a “no-go," but NASA is hopeful the weather will subside in time for Launch America to proceed. Weather conditions are still being monitored.
We're continuing to track weather forecasts for today's launch of @SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft with @Astro_Doug & @AstroBehnken onboard. Liftoff is targeted for 3:22pm ET. Tune in: https://t.co/dthNEgGAd4— NASA (@NASA) May 30, 2020
12:17 p.m. -- Crew settles in for Launch America
The hatch is closed and the crew is settled in for Launch America.
12:06 p.m. -- To scrub or not to scrub? ‘It’s part of the job’
Former astronaut and current Center Director of Kennedy Space Center Bob Cabana discussed what it’s like to both launch and scrub missions.
"They key is the training we go through... we practice everything. Including scrubs. It's part of the job." @NASAKennedy director and former astronaut @Astro_CabanaBob on what it's like to launch AND scrub: pic.twitter.com/Hj9vN9Si04— NASA (@NASA) May 30, 2020
12:02 p.m. -- NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine predicts 50/50 chance for liftoff
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said there’s a 50/50 chance for liftoff Saturday, depending on weather conditions.
11:51 a.m. -- Behnken and Hurley test communication channels in spacecraft
Astronauts Behnken and Hurley are buckled into Crew Dragon and are testing communication channels to make sure they are working inside the spacecraft.
11:43 a.m. -- Behnken and Hurley board Crew Dragon
Astronauts Behnken, the joint operations commander, and Hurley, the spacecraft commander, are the first ones to board the Crew Dragon for Launch America mission.
11:37 a.m. -- Crew ingress begins
The crew is boarding the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.
11:35 a.m. -- Astronauts standing next to their ride to space
The astronauts are standing next to the SpaceX Dragon capsule atop the Falcon 9 rocket.
11:29 a.m. -- Crew approaches elevator to top of Falcon 9 rocket
The crew is approaching the elevator that will carry them to the top of the Falcon 9 rocket.
11:21 a.m. -- Astronauts Behnken and Hurley arrive to launchpad
Behnken and Hurley arrive at the historic Launch Complex 39A and are preparing to ascend the launch tower to the Crew Dragon spacecraft.
11:19 a.m. -- Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley travel to launchpad
Behnken and Hurley are getting closer and closer to Launch America.
"This is just one of those moments where everyone in this country is coming together to wish them well, to get them to space safely." @Astro_Flow watches as @NASA_Astronauts @AstroBehnken and @Astro_Doug get closer and closer to #LaunchAmerica. pic.twitter.com/fBlFeq8EwM— NASA (@NASA) May 30, 2020
11:06 a.m. -- Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley wave to crowd, get in car to drive to launchpad
Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are cheered on by the crowd as they get into the car to drive onto the launchpad.
11:01 a.m. -- Kelly Clarkson sings rendition of Star-Spangled Banner
Grammy Award-winning singer Kelly Clarkson joined Launch America virtually to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
10:27 a.m. -- Watch NASA prelaunch coverage
NASA has started its prelaunch coverage. You can watch it in the video player below.
10:26 a.m. -- First NASA astronauts to fly aboard Crew Dragon don their SpaceX spacesuits
Watch as astronauts to fly aboard Crew Dragon try on their SpaceX spacesuits.