NASA and SpaceX make history by launching Americans into space from US soil

  • 1 month ago
NASA and SpaceX make history by launching Americans into space from US soil

A pillar of fire tore through the skies above Kennedy Space Center on Saturday, as NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley returned to space on a historic mission nearly a decade in the making.

The flight, known as Crew Dragon Demo-2, bridges the gap left by the space shuttle program's final flight in July 2011. It's the first time a private company has sent humans into orbit — and the first time in nearly a decade that the United States has launched astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil. Ever since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA has relied on Russian spaceships launched from Kazakhstan to take U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

"Congratulations to you and the team for the first human ride for Falcon 9," Hurley, a retired Marine Corps colonel and mission commander, said from orbit. "It was incredible. I appreciate all the hard work and thanks for the great ride to space."

Behnken, an Air Force colonel, also thanked SpaceX teams for "putting America back into low-Earth orbit from the Florida coast."

Inside Kennedy Space Center, a small crowd of a few thousand was a fraction of what it would have been without the threat of COVID-19.

In attendance to watch the launch in person: President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who flew in for the event for the second time in four days. Elton John's "Rocket Man" played at an operations building about two miles away as Trump watched the rocket take to the air.

Trump offered comments to the press immediately after the launch: “I’m proud of the people, NASA, the people that work together ... It’s amazing, it’s a beautiful sight, a beautiful ship too.

"I think this is such a great inspiration for our country," said the president. "I think any one of you would say that was an inspiration to see what we just saw."

Minutes after liftoff, Crew Dragon separated from the rocket's upper stage, triggering the activation of its solar arrays to begin providing power to spacecraft systems. Teams watching live at SpaceX's headquarters in California cheered.

"It's been nine years since we've launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said after launch. "And now it's done. We have done it."

The liftoff marks the beginning of a roughly 19-hour journey to the orbiting outpost dedicated to science, where astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner are waiting to help open Crew Dragon's hatch. After docking on Sunday, Behnken and Hurley will spend one to four months on board depending on the demonstration mission's needs.

Before they arrive, the duo will have two opportunities to manually pilot their capsule: one "far-field" attempt and another about 720 feet from the station. The roughly 30-minute maneuvers will give the former shuttle astronauts their first feeling for how Crew Dragon flies outside of simulators.

They'll also have a chance to get about eight hours of sleep, too.

If all goes according to plan, the capsule should dock at the ISS at 10:27 a.m. Eastern time Sunday, followed by hatch opening at 1:55 p.m. and a welcoming ceremony 30 minutes later. All events will be broadcast at nasa.gov/nasatv.

 

The launch followed days of concern about weather conditions and a scrubbed launch Wednesday.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said a previous launch attempt Wednesday was delayed because liftoff could have triggered a lightning storm in an electrically charged atmosphere. "In fact, the rocket itself could become a lightning bolt," he said.

Weather is a difficult obstacle because teams can't extend a window and wait for the weather to improve. The requirement for Falcon 9 to launch exactly on time is due to orbital mechanics, as the Crew Dragon capsule has to "catch up" with the ISS, which is traveling at 17,000 mph about 250 miles above Earth.

The space agency urged people to watch the launch from home, but some spectators began lining the Cape Canaveral area’s beaches and roads ahead of Saturday’s launch.

Earlier in the week, Michael Mathews and 10 vacationing relatives from Dandridge, Tennessee, drove from Kissimmee to the Cocoa Beach Pier to see the SpaceX launch on Wednesday – but it was scrubbed.

Undaunted by another iffy weather forecast, the Tennesseans returned to the pier Saturday. 

“This is history, man. You’ve got two Americans being launched from America for the first time since 2011,” said Mathews, who is a U.S. Navy veteran.

“This is the Space Force. This is the beginning. You’ve got Elon Musk – a brilliant guy. It’s history in the making,” he said, holding a beach chair.

A sea of spectators — perhaps triple the number from Wednesday’s scrub — watched the launch amid dozens of colorful canopies and umbrellas.

A brief chant of, “USA! USA!” arose after the rocket took flight, along with applause and cheers.

 

Contributing: Britt Kennerly and Alessandro Sassoon, Florida Today; The Associated Press.

Follow Emre Kelly on Twitter at: @EmreKelly

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NASA, SpaceX make history by launching Americans with Crew Dragon

Comments