Miami, May 30 (efe-epa).- A Falcon 9 rocket carrying the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule lifted off Saturday from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on the first crewed space mission to be launched from the United States since 2011.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were on hand to see the rocket, also made by SpaceX, blast off from historic pad 39-A at 3.22 pm (19.22 GMT), bound for the International Space Station.
Aboard the capsule were NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, 49, and Douglas Hurley, 53.
“It is absolutely our honor to be part of this huge effort to get the United States back in the launch business,” Hurley told Mission Control minutes before lift-off.
Twelve minutes after the rocket left the pad, the Crew Dragon separated from the launch vehicle to begin its 19-hour journey to the ISS, where Hurley and Behnken will spend anywhere from six to 16 weeks.
The Falcon 9’s reusable first-stage booster made it safely to the deck of SpaceX’s drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You, 11 minutes after the rocket left the pad.
“I think this is such a great inspiration for our country,” Trump told reporters after the launch, suggesting the events at the space center could boost the morale of Americans mourning deaths from coronavirus.
“We suffered something that was terrible, it should have never happened, should have never come out of China. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be here today. I thought it was so important to be here today. I think any one of you would say that was an inspiration to see what we just saw,” the president said. “So it’s great to have this whole program back, and this is just the beginning. We have many more things to come.”
The mission was originally supposed to begin Wednesday, but bad weather forced NASA to postpone the launch 15 minutes before the scheduled lift-off.
Conditions were not dramatically better on Saturday and NASA said there was a 50 percent chance of another delay. Final approval for lift-off came only at 3.15 pm.
Since 2011, when NASA retired the space shuttles, the US space agency has had to rely on its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, to carry astronauts to the ISS.
Three years after moth-balling the shuttles, NASA signed contracts with Elon Musk’s SpaceX venture and aerospace giant Boeing to develop, build and operate craft capable of transporting humans into space.
SpaceX opted to modify its existing cargo capsule, but Boeing created a new vehicle from scratch, the Starliner, which suffered a major malfunction during an unmanned test flight last December.
Musk, who says his ambition is to send humans to Mars, has suggested that spare seats on Crew Dragon missions for NASA will be offered to private individuals willing to pay for the experience of space travel.
Behnken flew on two space shuttle missions to the ISS and was designated NASA’s Chief Astronaut from 2012 to 2015. He is a US Air Force colonel and test pilot who joined NASA in 2000, and he has performed six spacewalks and logged more than 29 days in space.
Hurley is a retired US Marine Corps colonel who likewise joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 2000. He flew a pair of shuttle missions in 2009 and 2011, respectively. EFE