After nearly a decade, America has once again watched astronauts blast off from U.S. soil.
SpaceX launched its Crew Dragon capsule into orbit Saturday, marking the first time NASA astronauts traveled into space aboard a commercially built spacecraft and rocket — a major milestone in human spaceflight.
It was also the first time American astronauts launched from the U.S. since NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011.
Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley lifted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center at 3:22 p.m. ET on a test flight to the International Space Station. The smooth launch represents a key accomplishment for SpaceX and the commercial spaceflight industry.
About 10 minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9 rocket’s reusable first stage fell back to Earth and successfully landed upright on SpaceX’s drone ship off the coast of Florida.
Behnken and Hurley will now spend around 19 hours orbiting the Earth before their capsule makes its rendezvous with the space station. The spacecraft is expected to dock Sunday at around 10:29 a.m. ET.
The road to liftoff was a dramatic one, with stormy weather in the vicinity of the launch site in Cape Canaveral mere hours before the event. The astronauts’ first launch attempt on Wednesday was scrubbed because of the threat of lightning.
But clear conditions prevailed Saturday, allowing Behnken and Hurley to rocket into orbit from the same launch pad that NASA used to send astronauts to the moon during the Apollo program and into low-Earth orbit on the space shuttles.
Astronauts have not launched into space from the U.S. since the agency shuttered its space shuttle program nine years ago. SpaceX’s much-anticipated launch has been heralded as the start of a new era of human spaceflight — one that involves NASA contracting out routine flights to the space station to private companies while the agency focuses on other science and exploration goals.
“We’re at the dawn of a new age, and we’re really leading the beginning of a space revolution,” James Morhard, NASA’s deputy administrator, said Friday in a news briefing. “This is something much bigger than all of us.”
The test flight is the last major milestone for SpaceX under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a joint public-private partnership to develop new spacecraft for trips into low-Earth orbit. Since the end of the space shuttle program, NASA has spent more than $80 million per seat to hitch rides to the space station aboard Russian capsules and rockets.
SpaceX received more than $3 billion from NASA to develop the Crew Dragon capsule, and the company has spent the past six years modifying and testing the spacecraft. An uncrewed version of the capsule is already used to ferry cargo to the space station, but this will be SpaceX’s inaugural flight with humans onboard.
If successful, SpaceX could begin flying crews to the orbiting outpost in August, according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Under the Commercial Crew Program, NASA also awarded more than $4.5 billion to Boeing to design a rival capsule known as the CST-100 Starliner. Boeing is expected to conduct an uncrewed test flight of the capsule later this year.
In addition to being an important historical milestone, SpaceX’s mission represents the return of human spaceflight to the Kennedy Space Center. NASA officials said they are looking forward to astronaut crews making regular trips to and from the space station from U.S. soil, followed by crewed journeys to the moon and eventually Mars.
“I remember when I was in second grade watching the space shuttle launch,” NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, who spent 141 days living and working on the space station in 2015, said Friday in a news briefing. “That inspired me to recognize that this job of exploration was a possibility for me. [SpaceX’s] launch is going to do that for the next generation of scientists, explorers and astronauts.”