SpaceX launched two NASA astronauts, Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken, into space on Saturday, the first human crew carried into orbit on an American rocket since 2011.
Launched from the Florida launch pad that once hosted moon missions and space shuttles, the reusable Falcon 9 rocket carrying the astronauts lifted off at 3:22 pm EDT. The rocket fired for two minutes before dropping off to touch down on a barge in the Atlantic ocean, while a second rocket stage launched the astronauts into orbit. The crew will test the Crew Dragon capsule’s systems before docking on Sunday with the International Space Station (ISS).
“This is really just the beginning,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in a pre-launch interview provided by NASA, calling for a future moonbase and human settlement on Mars. “This is a super-exciting future.”
The first US launch of astronauts into space since the retirement of NASA’s last space shuttle Atlantis in 2011, the NASA demonstration mission marks SpaceX as the winner in a long-fought race with Boeing to return the US to human spaceflight. NASA intends to pay both companies to send astronauts to the ISS aboard seven-person capsules. SpaceX is expected to charge the space agency $55 million per seat and Boeing $90 million per seat, according to a 2019 report by NASA’s inspector general. Russia has charged NASA up to $86 million a seat for launches since 2011 aboard its three-person Soyuz rockets.
An earlier launch attempt was postponed on Wednesday because of weather concerns, with rain clouds threatening lightning. President Donald Trump and vice-president Mike Pence, who has called for NASA to land astronauts on the moon by 2024, had watched the scrubbed first launch attempt from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. And Trump returned for the Saturday launch. The DEMO-2 launch was the result of a “commercial crew” program started under previous administrations and continued by the Trump administration.
“Buying the launch service instead of the government building its own has saved 10’s of billions of dollars,” former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver told BuzzFeed News.
Both SpaceX and Boeing faced mishaps in the race to be the first private company to launch the astronauts. Last year, SpaceX saw a capsule destroyed in an engine test. Serious software failures struck a demonstration launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule in December. SpaceX had launched a dummy, called Ripley, to the orbiting lab last year in a first demonstration mission to the International Space Station.
Coming in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic that has killed more people in the US than any other country, the launch was seen by NASA and the administration as a piece of welcome good news. Prelaunch presentations of the launch by SpaceX and NASA included a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by singer Kelly Clarkson.
“It’s not just going to unite Republicans and Democrats, it’s going to unite the world,” said Bridenstine, at a briefing before the launch on Tuesday. “The whole world is going to be watching.”
Hurley and Behnken were tested twice for the novel coronavirus before launch, as were all individuals in close contact with them. The astronauts spent a standard two weeks in quarantine to preclude them from carrying the novel coronavirus or other illnesses to the International Space Station. Both Hurley and Behnken are NASA veterans of previous space shuttle missions. Hurley piloted the last flight of Atlantis in 2011.