May 30, 2020 - Science

SpaceX launches NASA astronauts to orbit in historic first

A Falcon 9 rocket launch seen from Mission Control.

The launch seen from Mission Control. Photo: NASA/Joel Kowsky

For the first time in history, a private company has launched people to orbit from U.S. soil.

Why it matters: This SpaceX launch of its Crew Dragon capsule — in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — marks the first time NASA astronauts have been sent to the International Space Station from U.S. soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.

"Our country has been through a lot, but this is a unique moment where all of America can take a moment and look at our country do something stunning again."
— NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine ahead of launch

What's happening: The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Florida at 3:22 p.m. ET, carrying astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to space. The mission launched from the same launch pad that was used for the first mission to the Moon and the final space shuttle flight.

  • The Crew Dragon will now take about 19 hours to fly through space before docking to the station, allowing the crew onboard to do some system checkouts as part of this final test flight before SpaceX starts regular operational flights for NASA.
  • If all goes according to plan, the two astronauts should dock with the station by 10:29 a.m. ET on Sunday.
  • It's not yet clear how long the two veteran astronauts will spend onboard the station. NASA has said their mission could last up to a bit more than 100 days.

Between the lines: The launch also signals the beginning of the end of NASA's reliance on Russian rockets and spacecraft to launch its astronauts to orbit.

  • After the space shuttle program ended, NASA was forced to buy seats aboard Russia's Soyuz spacecraft in order to make sure their people continued to live and work aboard the ISS.
  • Now, NASA hopes that instead of paying upwards of $80 million per seat, the space agency will be able to trade seats aboard SpaceX's craft for seats on the Soyuz to maintain its partnership with Russia.
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