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27 July


US resumes human spaceflight with SpaceX launch

The launch won't be a success until NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley reach orbit, about 12 minutes after liftoff

SpaceX Falcon 9 Photo: AP

/NOVOSTIVL/ SpaceX, the private rocket company of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, launched two Americans toward orbit from Florida on Saturday in a mission that marks the first spaceflight of NASA astronauts from U.S. soil in nine years.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center at 3:22 p.m. EDT (1922 GMT), launching Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on a 19-hour ride aboard the company's newly designed Crew Dragon capsule bound for the International Space Station.

Moments before liftoff, Hurley said, “SpaceX we’re go for launch. Let’s light this candle,” paraphrasing the famous phrase uttered on the launch pad in 1961 by Alan Shephard, the first American launched into space.

Crew Dragon separated from its second stage booster at 3:35 and minutes later entered orbit.

Ahead of the crew is a highly choreographed sequence of events for their experimental mission, called Demo-2.

Now in orbit, Behnken and Hurley will climb out of their spacesuits, get a bite to eat, and begin to test out as many systems on Crew Dragon as they can - including overriding the spaceship's automated controls to pilot the vehicle. They also plan to try out the toilet (which is shrouded in proprietary mystery) and eventually get some sleep inside the vehicle.

The craft launched from the same pad 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.

The mission's first launch try on Wednesday was called off with less than 17 minutes remaining on the countdown clock. Weather again threatened Saturday's launch, but cleared in time to begin the mission.

NASA chief Jim Bridenstine has said resuming launches of American astronauts on American-made rockets from U.S. soil is the space agency's top priority.

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 chief executive 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.

Though the historic mission is on its way, the hard part is not over for the two men, SpaceX, or NASA - a partner that has invested more than $3.14 billion to foster the system's development.

Launching rockets is something SpaceX excels at, with now 86 successful liftoffs under its belt. Flying crewed space capsules and keeping the passengers alive is another matter.

To prove to NASA and the rest of the world it can be done, the astronauts will spend the next day catching up to the International Space Station, where they will dock the new spaceship for about 110 days before returning home.

The stakes are enormous, with the success of the mission — marked by a safe landing in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida - bound to shape the future of SpaceX, NASA, and human spaceflight in general.