SpaceX launch: Nasa astronauts shot into space in historic mission

Andrew Griffin
Saturday 30 May 2020 21:23
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Nasa astronauts launched into space in historic SpaceX mission

SpaceX has sent Nasa astronauts into space in a historic mission.

The Falcon 9 rocket carried the astronauts into orbit in SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule. Minutes after launch, the rocket detached and landed safely on a drone ship while the capsule continued to carry the astronauts on to the International Space Station.

The successful launch is the first time that humans have been shot into space from US soil since the Space Shuttle programme ended in 2011. And it is the first time that humans have been sent into space by a private company, a feat only previous achieved by the space agencies of the US, Russia and China.

SpaceX and Nasa hailed the achievement as the beginning of a plan that should make it far cheaper to head into space, and which could lead to humans being sent back to the Moon and Mars.

The astronauts – Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley – will fly on to the International Space Station in a mission that is intended to test the Crew Dragon capsule that Elon Musk's firm hopes represents the future of American spaceflight.

That journey will take 19 hours, before they dock at the station and meet other Nasa astronauts.

The original attempt to launch the rocket had been delayed, after Nasa feared that the launch could "trigger lightning" because of bad weather conditions.

The second try came amid similarly poor weather, but conditions cleared in time for mission controllers to be confident that the craft could launch safely.

Moments before liftoff, Hurley said, "SpaceX we're go for launch. Let's light this candle," paraphrasing the famous phrase uttered on the launch pad in 1961 by Alan Shephard, the first American launched into space.

Crew Dragon separated from its second stage booster at 3:35 and minutes later entered orbit.

The craft launched from the same pad used by NASA's final space shuttle flight, piloted by Hurley, in 2011. Since then, NASA astronauts have had to hitch rides into orbit aboard Russia's Soyuz spacecraft.

"It's incredible, the power, the technology," said U.S. President Donald Trump, who was at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida for the launch, "That was a beautiful sight to see."

The mission's first launch try on Wednesday was called off with less than 17 minutes remaining on the countdown clock. Weather again threatened Saturday's launch, but cleared in time to begin the mission.

NASA chief Jim Bridenstine has said resuming launches of American astronauts on American-made rockets from U.S. soil is the space agency's top priority.

"I'm breathing a sigh of relief, but I will also tell you I'm not gonna celebrate until Bob and Doug are home safely." Bridenstine said.

For Musk, the launch represents another milestone for the reusable rockets his company pioneered to make spaceflight less costly and more frequent. And it marks the first time commercially developed space vehicles - owned and operated by a private entity rather than NASA - have carried Americans into orbit.

The last time NASA launched astronauts into space aboard a brand new vehicle was 40 years ago at the start of the space shuttle program.

Musk, the South African-born high-tech entrepreneur who made his fortune in Silicon Valley, is also chief executive of electric carmaker and battery manufacturer Tesla Inc. He founded Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies, in 2002.

Hurley, 53, and Behnken, 49, NASA employees under contract to fly with SpaceX, are expected to remain at the space station for several weeks, assisting a short-handed crew aboard the orbital laboratory.

Boeing Co, producing its own launch system in competition with SpaceX, is expected to fly its CST-100 Starliner vehicle with astronauts aboard for the first time next year. NASA has awarded nearly $8 billion to SpaceX and Boeing combined for development of their rival rockets.

Trump called the launch the beginning, saying that eventually there would be flights to Mars.

He was joined at the viewing by Vice President Mike Pence, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Florida congressman Matt Gaetz and Senator Rick Scott.

Earlier on Saturday, the crew bid goodbye to their families. Prior to getting into a specially-designed Tesla for the ride to the launch site, Behnken told his young son, "Be good for mom. Make her life easy".

During the drive, Behnken and Hurley passed former astronaut Garrett Reisman holding a side saying, "Take me with you."

Additional reporting by agencies

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