After nearly two decades of effort, Elon Musk’s aerospace company, SpaceX, successfully launched its first two people into orbit, ushering in a new age of human spaceflight in the United States. The flight marked the first time astronauts have launched into orbit from American soil in nearly a decade, and SpaceX is now the first company to send passengers to orbit on a privately made vehicle.
The two astronauts — veteran NASA fliers Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — rode into space inside SpaceX’s new automated spacecraft called the Crew Dragon, a capsule designed to take people to and from the International Space Station. Strapped inside the sleek, gumdrop-shaped capsule, the duo lifted off on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 3:22PM ET on Saturday. The rocket dropped the Crew Dragon off in orbit about 12 minutes later. Now, the pair will spend roughly the next day in orbit before attempting to dock with the International Space Station on Sunday morning.
“Bob and Doug, on behalf of the entire launch team, thanks for flying with Falcon 9 today,” Crew Dragon’s chief engineer said to the two astronauts after they reached orbit. “We hope you enjoyed the ride and wish you a great mission.” SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket also successfully landed on one of the company’s drone ships following takeoff, making for a smooth launch throughout.
This launch is a critical moment for SpaceX, a company formed by Musk with the express purpose of sending humans into space and building settlements on Mars. It’s also the final major test for SpaceX as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Through that initiative, NASA enlisted two companies, SpaceX and Boeing, to develop new spacecraft that could regularly ferry the agency’s astronauts to and from the space station. After six years of development and testing on the Crew Dragon, SpaceX pulled ahead in the race to launch humans first. Today’s mission is SpaceX’s last big test flight for that program, meant to determine if the Crew Dragon is ready to start regularly carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS in the years ahead.
Though this mission is considered a test, it still carried enormous weight for the United States. The last time people launched to orbit from the US was during the final flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle on July 8th, 2011. Since then, Russia’s Soyuz rocket has been the only vehicle available to do crewed flights to the ISS, and just one seat on the Soyuz runs NASA about $80 million.
The Commercial Crew Program was created to end NASA’s reliance on Russia but also to jump-start a new way of doing business at NASA. For all of spaceflight history, the government has been in charge of overseeing the design, production, and operation of spacecraft that take humans into orbit. With Commercial Crew, NASA wanted the private sector to get involved. When NASA first awarded SpaceX and Boeing their contracts in 2014, NASA hoped that they would be flying their vehicles by 2017. Technical delays and testing failures set the program back, but eventually, SpaceX made it to today’s milestone.
“They’re laying the foundation for a new era in human spaceflight,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said before launch. “It’s an era in human spaceflight where more space is going to be available to more people than ever