CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX has begun a new chapter in the history of United States spaceflight.
Elon Musk’s private space company on Saturday launched NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley into orbit, successfully beginning SpaceX’s first crewed mission. The company’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 3:22 p.m. ET. The capsule is the first privately designed and built spacecraft to carry astronauts to space and is bound for the International Space Station.
Beyond the achievement for SpaceX, the launch represents the first time NASA has launched its own astronauts since the end of the space shuttle program nearly a decade ago.
“It was incredible,” NASA astronaut Bob Behnken said of the launch, moments after the spacecraft reached orbit. “Appreciate all the hard work and thanks for the great ride to space.”
Known as Demo-2, the launch represents the culmination of SpaceX’s work thus far. Musk founded the company in 2002 and has since declared its informal credo to be “making humanity a multi-planetary species.” To date, SpaceX has launched dozens of satellites and spacecraft but, before Saturday, it had never put a human in space.
Just after 3:22 p.m. ET, the Falcon 9 rocket carrying Crew Dragon and the astronauts lifted off from the launchpad. About 12 minutes later, Crew Dragon reached orbit successfully.
“Thanks for flying with Falcon 9,” SpaceX’s launch director told the astronauts. “We wish you a great mission.”
The astronauts are scheduled to reach the International Space Station on Sunday morning. The pair will spend a couple of months on board the space station before getting back
In addition to the launch, SpaceX also successfully landed the Falcon 9 rocket booster. The booster is the large lower portion of the rocket, which re-entered the Earth’s atmopshere and landed on the company’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX has landed its Falcon 9 rocket boosters 45 times.
Musk was there to watch the launch in person, along with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
“This just the beginning; it’s only going to get better,” Bob Cabana, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, said before the launch.
Ever since the space shuttle retired about nine years ago, the U.S. has paid Russia upwards of $80 million per seat to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. But NASA awarded SpaceX and Boeing with contracts worth $3.1 billion and $4.8 billion, respectively, to develop new spacecraft under a program called Commercial Crew. For SpaceX, the Demo-2 launch represents the final flight test of its Crew Dragon capsule, built to carry as many as seven people to orbit.
NASA plans to fly its astronauts regularly to the space station, expected to pay SpaceX about $55 million per astronaut to do so. After those missions begin, SpaceX plans to use Crew Dragon spacecraft for other missions. Those include space tourism, as the company has so far unveiled two deals to fly privately paying people to space on Crew Dragon as early as next year.
“We’re at the dawn of a new age and we’re really leading the beginning of the space revolution,” NASA deputy administrator Jim Morhard told press ahead of the launch.
NASA will broadcast 24 hours of nonstop live coverage of SpaceX Demo-2. The webcast began four hours before liftoff and will continue until the Crew Dragon spacecraft docks with the ISS.