SpaceX, a US-based private aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company under the leadership of Elon Musk has sent off American astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to International Space Station earlier today.
The journey which uses white-and-black, bullet-shaped Dragon capsule on top of a Falcon 9 rocket guided the industry into a new era of commercial space travel and has put the United States back in the market of launching astronauts into orbit from home soil for the first time in nearly a decade.
NASA’s Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken lifted off at 3:22 PM EST from the same launch pad was used to send Apollo crews to the moon a half-century ago. Minutes later, they slipped safely into orbit.
“Let’s light this candle,” Hurley said just before ignition, borrowing the historic words used by Alan Shepard on America’s first human spaceflight, in 1961. The two men are expected to arrive at the International Space Station later today, 250 miles above Earth, for a stay of up to four months.
“We are back in the game. It’s very satisfying,” said Doug Marshburn, of Deltona, Florida, who shouted, “USA! USA!” as he watched the 260-foot rocket climb skyward.
SpaceX becomes the first private company to propel people into orbit, an achievement accomplished by only three governments: the U.S., Russia and China previously.
“This is something that should really get people right in the heart of anyone who has any spirit of exploration,” Musk, the visionary also behind the Tesla electric car company, said after liftoff.
The flight also finished a nine-year launch drought for NASA. Ever since it retired the space shuttle in 2011, NASA has depended on Russian spaceships launched from Kazakhstan to take U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Over the past several years, NASA outsourced the task of designing and building its next generation of spaceships to SpaceX and Boeing, granting them $7 billion in contracts in a public-private partnership proposed at pushing down costs and encouraging innovation. Boeing’s spaceship, the Starliner capsule, is not anticipated to fly astronauts until early 2021.
NASA plans to depend on part on commercial partners as it proceeds to its next goals: sending astronauts back to the moon within a few years, and on to Mars in the 2030s.
The initial effort to launch the rocket, on Wednesday, was called off with less than 17 minutes to go in the countdown because of lightning. On Saturday, stormy weather endangered another delay for most of the day, but the skies began to clear just in the time.
Under the new corporate-public model, aerospace firms design, develop, control and operate spaceships, and NASA is basically a paying client on a list that could ultimately include non-government researchers, artists and tourists.