Astronauts successfully liftoff in historic SpaceX Demo 2 launch

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.

2:22 p.m. -- We have successfully launched

Astronauts have successfully lifted off in historic SpaceX and NASA launch.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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