Elon Musk’s SpaceX has become the first private company to launch humans into orbit, after unsettled weather over the Kennedy Space Center in Florida cleared for long enough on Saturday afternoon to allow a second launch attempt to go ahead.
Nasa astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley became the first to fly in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, carried on top of one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets towards a planned rendezvous with the International Space Station.
The launch, at 3.22pm local time, marked the first time astronauts had been launched into orbit from US soil since the Space Shuttle programme ended in 2011. An earlier attempt on Wednesday was called off because of stormy conditions at launch time.
A planned Nasa successor to the Space Shuttle was called off by the Obama White House, forcing the space agency to turn to private companies to build and operate spacecraft for the first time. SpaceX has now become the first to complete a manned test of its craft, while Boeing, which was also awarded a contract under Nasa’s Commercial Crew programme, was held back earlier this year by technical problems during an unmanned test of its own craft.
The Crew Dragon capsule is due to dock with the ISS some 19 hours after launch, where the astronauts will spend up to 119 days before attempting a return to earth for a splashdown landing at sea. If the test is successful, Nasa is expected to send four astronauts as paying passengers in the SpaceX craft for the first time before the end of this year.
The use of privately owned and operated rockets is expected to bring down the cost of manned space flight as commercial incentives replace the traditional cost-plus development programmes Nasa has relied on in the past. Some experts predict the cost of launching an astronaut into orbit could fall to less than $10m over the next decade, far lower than the price of more than $90m that Nasa has had to pay for its most recent trips on Russian Soyuz rockets.