A rocket ship built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company roared into space with two Americans on board on Saturday, the first time U.S. astronauts have launched from U.S. soil in nearly a decade.
In a flawless liftoff and flight, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are now hurtling toward the International Space Station at more than 1,500 mph in the bullet-shaped Dragon capsule, a flight that will take 19 hours. The Falcon 9 rocket that launched them into space also returned to earth successfully.
“Let’s light this candle,” Hurley said just before the rocket fired up, using a phrase uttered by astronaut Alan Shepard on America’s first human spaceflight in 1961. The last U.S. launch came in July 2011 and became the final mission of NASA’s space shuttle program. The SpaceX Dragon capsule is the first two-person orbital spaceflight launched from the U.S. since STS-4 in 1982.
President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence attended the launch. Within seconds of the launch, Elton John’s “Rocket Man” — a Trump rally classic — began to play over speakers.
From an observation platform, Trump said he asked NASA officials: “Would you hear anything? because we’re a good distance away and then all of a sudden you hear that roar.”
“I’m so proud of the people, of NASA, public and private. When you see a sight like that, it’s incredible. When you hear that sound — the roar — you can imagine how dangerous it is,” Trump said.
American astronauts have continued to go to the ISS, but on foreign rockets – and at a hefty price. Russia, for instance, charged the U.S. $85 million per astronaut.
The first attempted launch of the SpaceX rocket on Wednesday was scrubbed with less than than 17 minutes left on the the countdown clock because of stormy weather around the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Saturday didn’t look much better, with weather.com predicting scattered thunderstorms in the area, and a 55% chance of rain at the time of liftoff.
But the skies opened up shortly before the 3:22 p.m. launch, and the rocket blasted into space.
With COVID-19 sweeping the U.S. and riots exploding in cities across the country after the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police in Minneapolis, NASA officials said that perhaps Americans could rally around the SpaceX flight.
“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,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said before launch.
Said Trump: “I think this is such a great inspiration for our country. Our country is doing well… We suffered something that was terrible. It should have never happened — it should have never come out of China… That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be here today and I think any one of you would say that was an inspiration to see what we just saw.”
The astronauts said they’re happy the U.S. is back in the space business. “It’s a real honor to just be a part of this program and to launch American rockets from Florida one more time,” said Hurley, 53, who was also on that last space shuttle flight in 2011.
Hurley, the mission commander, and Behnken will conduct experiments while on the ISS, where they are scheduled to stay for one to four months, until the next Crew Dragon launch. They will then return to Earth for a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean east of Cape Canaveral.
SpaceX, founded by Musk, became the first private company to launch people into orbit, a feat so far achieved by only three governments – the U.S., Russia, and China.