Four astronauts successfully used the SpaceX Crew Dragon “Resilience” to blast off on a mission to the International Space Station. Sunday’s liftoff was U.S.-based NASA’s first full-fledged mission sending a crew into orbit aboard a privately-owned spacecraft.
SpaceX is owned by billionaire, Elon Musk.
Three Americans — Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker — and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi blasted off at 7:27 pm (0027 GMT Monday) from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, thus ending almost a decade of international reliance on Russia for rides on its Soyuz rockets.
“This is a great day for the United States of America, and a great day for Japan,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine during a post-launch press conference.
Twelve minutes after liftoff, at an altitude of 124 miles (200 kilometers) and a speed of 16,800 miles (27,000 kilometers) per hour, the capsule successfully separated from the second stage of the rocket.
“That was one heck of a ride,” said mission commander Hopkins from orbit.
SpaceX confirmed that it was on the right orbit to reach the ISS a little more than 27 hours later, at around 11:00 pm Monday night (0400 GMT Tuesday), joining two Russians and one American aboard the station, and stay for six months.
There was a problem with the cabin temperature control system, but it was quickly solved.
“She’s operating just fine,” said SpaceX president Glynne Shotwell during the press conference. But “we’ll be able to breathe a sigh of relief, 26 or so hours from now, once we hand the crew over to NASA.”
SpaceX briefly transmitted live images from inside the capsule showing the astronauts in their seats, something neither the Russians nor the Americans had done before.
US President-elect Joe Biden hailed the launch on Twitter as a “testament to the power of science and what we can accomplish by harnessing our innovation, ingenuity, and determination,” while President Donald Trump called it “great.”
Vice President Mike Pence, who attended the launch with his wife Karen, called it a “new era in human space exploration in America.”
The Crew Dragon capsule earlier this week became the first spacecraft to be certified by NASA since the Space Shuttle nearly 40 years ago. Its launch vehicle is a reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
At the end of its missions, the Crew Dragon deploys parachutes and then splashes down in the water, just as in the Apollo era.
SpaceX is scheduled to launch two more crewed flights for NASA in 2021, including one in the spring, and four cargo refueling missions over the next 15 months.
NASA turned to SpaceX and Boeing after shuttering the checkered Space Shuttle program in 2011, which failed in its main objectives of making space travel affordable and safe.
The agency will have spent more than $8 billion on the Commercial Crew program by 2024, with the hope that the private sector can take care of NASA’s needs in “low Earth orbit” so it is freed up to focus on return missions to the Moon and then on to Mars.
SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, leapfrogged its much older rival Boeing, whose program floundered after a failed test of its uncrewed Starliner last year.