(CBS) — In a historic first for the U.S. space program, a spacecraft designed, built, owned and operated by a private company – SpaceX – blasted off Saturday with two NASA astronauts aboard – the first purely private sector launch to orbit in space history. It was also the first launch of a crew from U.S. soil since the space shuttle program ended nearly nine years ago.
Cheered on by a nation in the grip of a devastating pandemic, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the company’s first piloted Crew Dragon ferry ship, vaulted away from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 3:22:45 p.m. EDT to kick off a long-awaited test flight to the International Space Station.
Liftoff came three days after stormy weather forced SpaceX to call off the first launch attempt Wednesday.
Saturday’s launching was in doubt until late in the countdown, due to the same weather system along Florida’s Space Coast and rough conditions along the spacecraft’s downrange trajectory. But as the afternoon wore on, conditions improved enough for cautious mission managers to give a “go” to proceed.
Strapped into the capsule’s two center seats were commander Douglas Hurley, pilot of the final shuttle mission in 2011, and his best friend, veteran spacewalker Robert Behnken. Both men are making their third trip to the orbiting space laboratory.
Wearing futuristic-looking SpaceX-designed pressure suits, the astronauts will be monitoring the progress of their fully automated climb to space on large touchscreen displays, and replying to calls from SpaceX flight controllers at the company’s Hawthorne, California, rocket factory.
Streaking away to the northeast through, the Falcon 9 climbed directly into the plane of the space station’s orbit, putting on a spectacular afternoon show as it consumed propellants, lost weight and rapidly accelerated. Twelve minutes after liftoff, the spacecraft slipped into its planned preliminary orbit.
“Bob, Doug, on behalf of the entire launch team, thanks for flying with Falcon 9 today,” a SpaceX engineer radioed the crew. “We hope you enjoyed the ride and wish you a great mission.”
“Thanks, our congratulations to the F9 team for the first human ride for Falcon 9,” Hurley replied. “And it was incredible. Appreciate all the hard work and thanks for the great ride to space.”
Added Behnken: “Proud of you guys and the rest of the team. Thank you so much for what you’ve done for us today, putting America back into low-Earth orbit from the Florida coast.”
The launching was a thrilling moment for SpaceX employees, NASA workers, Space Coast residents and President Trump, who traveled to the launch site despite the questionable weather forecast to witness the dawn of a new era in space travel.
With the Kennedy Space Center closed to non-essential personnel because of the COVID-19 pandemic, NASA urged tourists to stay away and enjoy the launch on television or via computer.
But that did not dampen the excitement at NASA and at SpaceX, the innovative rocket California company that has shaken up the commercial launch industry with its low-cost, partially reusable rockets.
“This is the culmination of a dream,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk told CBS News in a pre-launch interview. “If you asked me when starting SpaceX if this would happen, I’d be like, 1 percent, .1 percent chance. It’s an absurd thing to even consider.
“I’m extremely appreciative of NASA for supporting us from actually quite an early stage and taking a chance on a little company that didn’t really have that much of a chance. But you know, it worked out.”
The historic mission is the first orbital flight of a new piloted spacecraft in 39 years. It’s the culmination of a six-year, multibillion-dollar NASA drive to end the agency’s sole reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for transporting astronauts to and from the space station.
The ability to launch government-financed, privately owned ferry ships will enable NASA to expand the space station’s crew to seven, including four full-time NASA and partner agency astronauts, maximizing the amount of research that can be carried out in the $100 billion lab complex.
Known as Demonstration test flight No. 2, or Demo 2, Saturday’s flight was the second launch of a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and the first with astronauts on board. If no major problems are found, the agency is expected to certify the spacecraft for operational space station crew rotation missions, clearing with way for the launch of a three-man one-woman crew this fall.
Longer term, NASA also expects the Commercial Crew Program – under which SpaceX and, eventually, Boeing, will launch private citizens as well as professional astronauts – to open up the high frontier to private sector development, including privately operated space stations.
That’s the big picture. The headline Saturday: the launching marked the resumption of U.S. launches of NASA astronauts from U.S. soil after nearly nine years. And the Falcon 9 did not disappoint.