A new era of commercial space travel began Saturday when a SpaceX rocket blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center and sent two Americans toward orbit. The blastoff from Florida marked the first spaceflight of NASA astronauts from U.S. soil in almost a decade. The flight, known as Crew Dragon Demo-2, marked the first time that humans have been sent to orbit in a commercially developed spacecraft. It’s also a landmark for billionaire Elon Musk, who founded Space Exploration Technologies Corp. 18 years ago with the stated goal of populating other planets.
Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken lifted off at 3:22 p.m. Saturday and are scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station on Sunday to join three crew members who are already there. “SpaceX we’re go for launch. Let’s light this candle,” Hurley said moments before liftoff, paraphrasing the famous phrase uttered by astronaut Alan Shepard before America’s first spaceflight in 1961. The launch took place from the same pad that NASA used in its final space shuttle flight, which was also piloted by Hurley, in 2011. Since that year when NASA retired the space shuttle, its astronauts have been forced to rely on Russian spacecraft to get to the space. “Today was just an amazing day,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said after the launch. “I’m breathing a sigh of relief, but I’m not going to celebrate until Bob and Doug are home safely.”
The two astronauts were accompanied by a sequined dinosaur in the cockpit that quickly became a star on social media. Although many were surprised, it is part of a tradition to carry some sort of toy into space as a zero-gravity indicator. Social media sleuths quickly identified the dinosaur as a product that was made by TY, the company behind Beanie Babies.
President Donald Trump traveled to Florida to watch the launch and vowed that eventually there would be flights to Mars, as he promised a “future of American dominance in space.” He wasn’t alone in wanting to get a first-hand look at the launch. Even though NASA had called on people to stay home to avoid crowds during the coronavirus pandemic, people still gathered to watch the historic moment. “We are back in the game. It’s very satisfying,” Doug Marshburn, of Deltona, Florida, said.
The launch marked the partial fulfillment of a NASA effort to entrust private companies to fly U.S. astronauts into space. In 2014, it signed contracts with Boeing and SpaceX worth a combined $6.8 billion to design and build vessels that could take astronauts to the International Space Station. Boeing had long been seen as the favorite to get astronauts to space first but after initial problems its spaceship is not expected to fly astronauts into orbit until early next year.