A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying two veteran NASA astronauts lifted off on Saturday on a historic first private crewed flight into space.
The two-stage SpaceX rocket with astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley aboard blasted off smoothly in a cloud of orange flames and smoke from Launch Pad 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center for the 19-hour voyage to the International Space Station.
The first crewed flight from US soil since the space shuttle program ended in 2011 had originally been scheduled for Wednesday but was delayed because of weather conditions, which also remained uncertain on Saturday right up until liftoff at 3:22 pm (1922 GMT).
The mission’s first launch try on Wednesday was called off with less than 17 minutes remaining on the countdown clock due to stormy weather around the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
The launch pad is the same one 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.
Trump arrives at Kennedy Space Center
President Donald Trump arrived on Saturday at Kennedy Space Center to attend the launch.
He arrived in Cape Canaveral on Air Force One, and he was greeted on the tarmac by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana.
Crew bid goodbye to their families
As the crew bid goodbye to their families before 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.”
NASA chief Jim Bridenstine has said resuming launches of American astronauts on American-made rockets from US soil is the space agency’s top priority.
For Elon Musk, the launch represents another milestone for the reusable rockets his company pioneered to make spaceflight less costly and more frequent. And it would mark 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 CEO 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.