NASA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX have officially brought spaceflight back to US with the successful launch of the Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley took off from Launch Complex 39A at 3:22pm Saturday – the first time in nine years an American crew has launched from US soil.
‘Let’s light this candle,’ commander Hurley said just before liftoff.
There was a 50 percent chance Falcon 9 would not take off today due to ominous clouds and lightning risks, but the weather cleared with just 45 minutes left on the clock countdown.
The Launch America mission is also the first time a private company has put astronauts into space and is the second attempt to launch after Wednesday’s flight was aborted due to poor weather conditions.
After reaching orbit, Falcon 9 successfully returned to Earth and was retrieved by SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ship ‘I Still Love You.’
The Crew Dragon is now taking the 19-hour journey to the International Space Station, where Behnken and Hurley will join the Expedition 63 crew.
The International Space Station was only accessible to NASA astronauts through the purchase of seats on Russian capsules launched from Kazakhstan – but that has all changed as of today.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference, ‘Maybe there´s an opportunity here for America to maybe pause and look up and see a bright, shining moment of hope at what the future looks like, that the United States of America can do extraordinary things even in difficult times.’
Among the spectators was Neil Wight, a machinist from Buffalo, New York, who staked out a view of the launch pad from a park in Titusville, Florida.
‘It’s pretty historically significant in my book and a lot of other people´s books. With everything that´s going on in this country right now, it´s important that we do things extraordinary in life,’ Wight said.
‘We’ve been bombarded with doom and gloom for the last six, eight weeks, whatever it is, and this is awesome. It brings a lot of people together.’
Crew Dragon should be in position to dock with the ISS about 24 hours after takeoff and will connect to the ship autonomously.
After successfully docking, Behnken and Hurley will join the other members on the space station and become part of the Expedition 63 crew.
The two men are scheduled to stay up to four months, after which they will come home with a Right Stuff-style splashdown at sea.
‘I would be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t nervous,’ Bridenstine said before the launch attempt. ‘We want to do everything we can to minimize the risk, minimize the uncertainty, so that Bob and Doug will be safe.’
NASA urged people to stay safe and watch from home due to the coronavirus, and by NASA’s count, over 3 million viewers tuned in online.
However, spectators began lining the Cape Canaveral area´s beaches and roads with signs along the main beach drag that read ‘Godspeed.’
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence returned to Kennedy Space Center to watch the second attempt of Launch America, which finally brought spaceflight back to US soil.
‘That was a beautiful sight to see and I hope you all enjoyed it,’ Trump said shortly after the rocket ship designed and built by Elon Musk´s SpaceX company lifted off for a trip to the International Space Station.
Both NASA and SpaceX said they would be ‘proceeding with countdown’ despite a 50 percent ‘weather cancellation risk’ amid concerns over possible thunderstorms and rain around the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral early Saturday morning.
Bridenstine said during an afternoon briefing: ‘We are predicting a 50, 50 shot of going this time.’
‘But because we are in late May, we have to take any shot we can get.’
‘We almost made it on Wednesday and the trend is better today than it was on Wednesday.’
The biggest concern was lighting, precipitation, cumulus clouds and anvil clouds – all of which could ground Falcon 9 until Sunday.
However, about 45 minutes to launch, all requirements went from red to green and a SpaceX official said ‘weather is a go.’
The launch pad where Falcon 9 took off from is the same one used by NASA’s last space shuttle flight, piloted by Hurley, in 2011.
Since then, NASA astronauts have had to hitch rides into orbit aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
Earlier today, Behnken and Hurley had a social distancing farewell with their families who met them outside of the Kennedy crew quarters before they took the journey to Launch Complex 39A.
Due to the policy, the team had to stand six-feet from their wives and children and say goodbye with air hugs.
Before saying goodbye, Behnken and Hurley suited up in the new spacesuits developed by Musk with the help of costume designer Jose Fernandez with envisioning the prototype.
Fernandez, who has worked on ‘The Avengers’ and ‘X-Men’, revealed that Musk wanted the crew to look better in the suit than without it, ‘like a tux.’
‘Musk kept saying, anyone looks better in a tux, no matter what size or shape they are,’ he said in an interview with Bleep.
‘I personally spent a lot of time — it took us three, almost four years to design these suits that both look good and work well,’ Musk said during NASA’s live coverage of the launch attempt on Wednesday.
‘You see the spacesuits in the movies — they look good, they don’t work well.’
‘You can make a spacesuit that works, but it doesn’t look good, because fundamentally it’s a pressure suit that has to survive in a vacuum.’
The suits were constructed in Hawthorne, California, which is the same facility where SpaceX keep its rockets.
They are custom-made for each passenger aboard Crew Dragon and designed to be functional, lightweight and to offer protection from potential depressurization.
For Musk, the launch represents another milestone for the reusable rockets his company pioneered to make spaceflight less costly and frequent.
And it would mark the first time that commercially developed space vehicles – owned and operated by a private entity rather than NASA – have carried Americans into orbit.
Musk said on Wednesday he accepted absolute responsibility if today’s historic launch of his Falcon 9 rocket ended in tragedy.
Musk told CBS This Morning: ‘I’m the chief engineer of this thing so I’d just like to say that if it goes right, it’s credit to the SpaceX-NASA team. If it goes wrong, it’s my fault.’
Asked whether there was one thing about this afternoon’s launch that kept him up at night, he added: ‘There’s thousands of things that can go wrong and only one thing that can go right.’
The last time NASA launched astronauts into space aboard a brand new vehicle was 40 years ago at the start of the shuttle program.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence visited the Kennedy Space Center three days ago for the first launch attempt and returned on Saturday.
Musk, the South African-born high-tech entrepreneur who made his fortune in Silicon Valley, is also the chief executive of electric carmaker and battery manufacturer Tesla Inc.
He founded Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies, in 2002.
Aerospace giant 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 $8billion to SpaceX and Boeing combined for development of their rival rockets.
Wednesday’s launch was cancelled with less than 17 minutes remaining on the countdown clock as bad weather meant the launch had to be delayed by a few seconds around the Kennedy Space Center.