The takeoff occurred just after 3:20 pm ET from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. Astronauts Robert Behnken, 49, and Douglas Hurley, 53, will spend approximately 19 hours aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule while maneuvering slowly toward the International Space Station.
The spacecraft is expected to dock with the space station around 10:29 a.m. ET on Sunday, May 31.
The United States has not launched its own astronauts into space since the Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011. Since then, NASA astronauts have had to travel to Russia and train on the country’s Soyuz spacecraft. Those seats have cost NASA as much as $ 86 million each.
The launch also marked the first time in history that a commercial aerospace company has brought humans into Earth orbit. SpaceX has been working on the Crew Dragon spacecraft for 15 years.
The launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft has advanced despite the Covid-19 pandemic, which has shut down private and government operations in the United States. NASA says it needed to continue the mission to maintain the International Space Station, a giant-orbiting laboratory, fully staffed by American astronauts.
NASA, SpaceX and military personnel gathered in control rooms to support the launch, and implemented additional security measures, such as changing the control rooms when a new shift begins so that the other room can be thoroughly cleaned.
Ahead of the launch, space agency chief official Jim Bridenstine said he hoped it would inspire astonishment and lift the general public during the current health crisis.
On the ground in Florida, local authorities prepared for an influx of onlookers expected to gather on nearby beaches, which recently reopened after weeks of confinement in the midst of the battle with Covid-19.
A few dozen journalists were allowed to cover the launch from the press area at the Kennedy Space Center, but strict social distancing policies and guidelines around the use of masks were implemented. Bridenstine held most of the briefings over the phone, for example, and in-person interviews were conducted one-on-one with the news teams.
This launch also served as a kind of litmus test for NASA’s drive to partner more broadly with the private sector.
SpaceX developed Crew Dragon under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which, for the first time in the space agency’s history, delivered much of the design, development, and testing of new human-rated spacecraft to the private sector. NASA awarded SpaceX and Boeing a fixed-price contract to do the job, and after Boeing suffered a major setback during an unmanned test flight last year,
That decision was not without controversy, particularly in the early days of the Commercial Crew Program. But Wednesday’s success could be seen as a great victory for NASA people who hope to rely more on similar contracts to help achieve the space agency’s goals.
Bridenstine, for example, hopes to rely heavily on private sector associations to achieve the space agency’s ambitious goal of landing American astronauts on the moon by 2024.
“Ultimately, what we are trying to achieve is to have numerous suppliers competing with each other in cost, innovation and safety. And then NASA can be a customer, a customer of many customers, and we already know that this will save a ton of long-term money, “Bridenstine told Rachel Crane of CNN Business earlier this week.