CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - A SpaceX rocket with an unmanned crew capsule blasted off on Saturday for the International Space Station, in a key milestone for Elon Musk's space company and NASA's long-delayed goal to resume human spaceflight from U.S. soil later this year.
The Crew Dragon capsule was launched on top of one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets, and contains 400lb of cargo, as well as a sophisticated crash dummy named Ripley, a reference to Sigourney Weaver's character in the Alien franchise.
Elon Musk, the CEO of US SpaceX aerospace company, said on Friday, after the launch of the SpaceX-manufactured Dragon 2 spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), that, of all the other stages of the mission, he was most of all anxious about Dragon 2's docking with the ISS and its return to Earth.
The historic launch, which was celebrated with cheers and applause at Kennedy Space Center, comes after multiple delays pushed the maiden flight back from an expected launch in 2018.
While NASA has continued to fly probes and robots into deep space, and has even landed on Mars, the inability to fly humans has remained an embarrassment for an agency that beat the Soviet Union in the Cold War space race to the moon. The mission is a test to win the approval of NASA, which is set to use the technology later this year if all goes well.
If all goes well, two NASA astronauts will trek to the space station in July.
No one is onboard the craft for the test flight with the exception of a test dummy named Ripley.
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NASA stopped its Space Shuttle programme eight years ago.
The plan calls for the capsule to dock with the International Space Station on Sunday morning. 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. "It's different", said Mark Geyer, director of the Johnson Space Center, where United States astronauts are based. Soyuz tickets have skyrocketed over the years; NASA now pays $82 million per seat.
SpaceX and Boeing have contracts worth up to $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion, respectively. "We're going to learn a ton from this mission".
"We want to make sure we keep our partnership with Russian Federation, which has been very strong for a long period of time", explained Bridenstine before the flight.
NASA astronaut Doug Hurley, slated to be on the first SpaceX test flight with humans, said the prospect of the mission "is pretty exciting".
Planning has been delayed by around three years, with the first manned SpaceX flight still pencilled in for July, though officials frequently refer to the end of 2019 as a more realistic deadline.
SpaceX's live stream starts from 12am on March 1 and cycles through preparation stages and launch before the capsule goes into orbit.