American Astronauts Blast Off in Historic NASA-SpaceX Launch: 'A Unique Moment in Time'
The flight is the first of American astronauts on American rockets from U.S. soil in nine years
"3, 2., 1... liftoff!"
The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft took off at 3:22 p.m. ET on Saturday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA astronauts Robert Behnken, 49, and Douglas Hurley, 53, are heading to the International Space Station in a history-making mission that was originally set for Wednesday, May 27. Officials moved it to Saturday due to weather.
"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," Hurley said before takeoff.
The endeavor is being celebrated as the first flight of American astronauts on American-made rockets from U.S. soil after the last Space Shuttle mission in July 2011. (Since then, American astronauts have traveled to the Space Station on Russian spaceships that took off in Kazakhstan.)
It will be the Crew Dragon's second test flight but it is the first with astronauts on board.
It's also the first time that a private company, Elon Musk's SpaceX, has sent a manned aircraft into space — marking an important step for the future of the commercial space travel industry.
“We're launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. We haven't done this really since 2011, so this is a unique moment in time,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Bridenstine added that "everybody can look up and say, 'Look, the future is so much brighter than the present.' And I really hope that this is an inspiration to the world.”
The space vehicle took off from Launch Pad 39A atop a specially instrumented Falcon 9 rocket, with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence watching from Kennedy Space Center.
Compared to the old Space Shuttle launches, attendance was otherwise limited due to the coronavirus pandemic, but many Floridians watched from nearby beaches, and people could also view a public live-stream.
The crew is expected to dock at the space station at approximately 10:29 a.m. on Sunday, according to a press release. Behnken and Hurley will then become members of the Expedition 63 crew.
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According to CNN, NASA had slotted this Saturday and Sunday as potential backup days after the weather had made liftoff unsafe on Wednesday. Officials survey weather conditions six hours, four hours and 45 minutes prior to lift off.
“I know there’s a lot of disappointment today. The weather got us,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said after the scrubbed launch on Wednesday. “But I also want to say, this was really, it was a great day for NASA, it was a great day for SpaceX. I think our teams worked together in a really impressive way, making good decisions all along.”
Bridenstine added that there was a lot of electricity in the atmosphere Wednesday afternoon, and there were fears that launching the spacecraft could trigger lightning.
Astronaut Hurley called the situation “frustrating,” but acknowledged that officials had made “absolutely” the right call.
The launch is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and “will provide data on the performance of the Falcon 9 rocket, Crew Dragon spacecraft and ground systems, as well as in-orbit, docking and landing operations,” NASA said. It must complete the trip before it can be certified by the program.
“The highest priority is to test the vehicle and get it home safely, and then be prepared to launch Crew-1,” Bridenstine said at a media conference on Tuesday.
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Added Behnken: “It has a lot of features and capabilities that hopefully we never have to utilize in a real mission, but Doug and I will make sure that they are all ready just in case we do.”
Behnken, who was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2000 and has completed two space shuttle flights, will serve as the joint operations commander for the mission, while Hurley, who has also been a NASA astronaut since 2000 and has completed two spaceflights, will be spacecraft commander.
It remains to be seen when the crew would return to Earth and touch down off the Atlantic Coast near Florida. The craft used for the test flight can stay in orbit for about 110 days, but its return is dependent upon when the next commercial crew launch will be ready.
When it does come back, it will leave the space station with Behnken and Hurley on board and splashdown off the Atlantic Coast near Florida, where it will be picked up at sea by SpaceX’s Go Navigator recovery vessel and brought back to Cape Canaveral.
If all goes as planned, NASA is expected to certify the Crew Dragon for “operational space station crew rotation missions, clearing the way for the launch of a three-man, one-woman crew this fall,” CBS News reported.
Aerospace manufacturer Boeing is also part of the program, but Boeing's first manned flight isn't expected to take off until 2021.
"The goal of the Commercial Crew Program is to provide safe, reliable, and cost-effective transportation to and from the International Space Station," NASA said. "This could allow for additional research time and increase the opportunity for discovery aboard humanity’s testbed for exploration, including preparation for human exploration of the Moon and Mars."