Nasa and SpaceX celebrated the successful launch on Saturday of a new astronaut capsule on a week-long round trip to the International Space Station - a key step towards resuming manned space flights from U.S. soil after an eight-year break.
The mission, called Demonstration-1 or DM-1, is meant to show NASA that Crew Dragon is safe for future human crew members. No private company has ever launched humans into orbit, and during a webcast of the launch, SpaceX employees could be seen packed into the main foyer of the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., cheering each milestone. After NASA retired its shuttle fleet in 2011, the USA has relied on Russian Federation to bring astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Between today and March 8, SpaceX will aim to prove the safety and reliability of the Crew Dragon before astronauts can take the helm in June this year. The capsule will then spend five days docked to the orbiting outpost and then return to Earth on Friday, landing in the Atlantic.
Bridenstine said he's confident that astronauts will soar on a Dragon or Starliner - or both - by year's end.
That's the name of the space-suited dummy aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon that launched Saturday, a hat tip to Ellen Ripley, the heroine of the sci-fi movie series.
The historic unmanned test flight marks the first time a commercially-built and operated American crew spacecraft and rocket was launched to the ISS.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a demo Crew Dragon spacecraft on an uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station lifts off.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket blasted off at 2:49 a.m. Saturday from pad 39A here, the same launch pad that hoisted Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon and numerous space shuttle missions as well.
Nasa chief Jim Bridenstine said it was a new era where "we are looking forward to be being one customer, as an agency and as a country". NASA now pays $82 million per seat. But now there are four seats, three windows, computer touch screens and life-support systems.
SpaceX and Boeing have contracts worth up to $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion, respectively.
"Previously, we would go close to the space station, and an [ISS robotic] arm would reach out and grab..." SpaceX plans to recycle the newly flying capsule for a high-altitude abort test this spring, along with a booster launched and retrieved a week ago.
If successful, the mission launched on Saturday and the upcoming manned launch will allow NASA to certify the new spacecraft for regular flights to the space station.