A SpaceX rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Saturday carrying two astronauts to the International Space Station, marking the first-ever commercial launch of humans into orbit.
Astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken are also the first people to lift off into orbit from the United States since the most recent space shuttle flight in July 2011. The launch went off as planned on Saturday, after bad weather forced SpaceX to postpone its initially scheduled blast off on Wednesday.
The mission, paid for by NASA, is expected to kick off the next major phase of the privatization of space, which has so far focused on satellite launches. Plans include the launch of private astronauts, constructing a private space station, and possibly private missions beyond Earth.
“What today is about is reigniting the dream of space,” SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk said this week before the launch. “It’s just a great, exciting, inspiring day.”
NASA hopes the lower cost of commercial flights will allow the agency to expand its space exploration and research efforts, with a goal to revisit the moon and ultimately reach Mars, as well. “The challenge with the Apollo program is that it ended,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said before the launch. “What we’re doing here today is sustainable.”
If all goes according to plan, Hurley and Behnken should arrive at the ISS on Sunday. The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket used in the launch returned intact onto the deck of a ship offshore.
In 2014, NASA commissioned SpaceX and Boeing to build launch vehicles capable of carrying humans to the station. Boeing has fallen somewhat behind its rival with its first mission expected next year if it can work out glitches with its Starliner capsule.
Beginning in 2021, the private space industry hopes to send the first-ever private astronauts to the space station. Texas-based startup Axiom Space, run by former NASA manager Mike Suffredini, has a deal with SpaceX to send four astronauts on commercial missions, while another startup, Space Adventures, contracted with SpaceX to carry tourists into space starting in 2022. Both deals hinge on the success of SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule that is being used in Wednesday’s launch.
Putting humans in orbit who aren’t government workers could help spur low gravity manufacturing techniques. It could also allow for working on satellites that need some assembly after launch or that need repairs.
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