At precisely 3:22 p.m. on Saturday, May 30, 2020, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule — with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley inside — took off from NASA’s historic Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A, bound for the International Space Station.
While the two astronauts are bringing important scientific experiments to the ISS, the most important piece of cargo was themselves.
As the first astronauts to fly into space through a private company’s rockets, they mark a new era for spaceflight with this mission, known as Demo-2. The launch marked the end of a nine-year period in which the US had to rely on Russia to send astronauts to space and back.
The launch on was the second attempt at history; a Wednesday effort was scrubbed due to poor weather in Florida.
But on Saturday, Astronauts Behnken and Hurley finally began their 19-hour journey to the ISS. As they continued skyward, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket returned to Earth to land on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You, which is floating about 90 miles off the coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean.
While the live feed of the first stage of the rocket approaching the droneship cut out, when the shot returned, it showed the first stage of the rocket standing upright on the droneship, a perfect landing. (This hasn't always been the case):
"It is absolutely our honor to be part of this huge effort to get the United States back in the launch business. We'll talk to you from orbit," said NASA astronaut Doug Hurley a few minutes before launch. A few minutes later, they were traveling at more than 5,600 miles per hour toward the ISS.
At 3:35 p.m., the Crew Dragon capsule separated from the second stage of the Falcon 9 on its way to ISS. It would be powered by 12 Draco rocket thrusters for the rest of the journey:
The mission has been a long time coming for both NASA and SpaceX. Neither the government nor the company wanted to pass up the moment. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk were side-by-side during interviews leading up to the launch, each expressing their excitement for the public-private partnership and what it could mean for the future of space exploration.
"We want to inspire kids to say that one day, they want to wear that uniform, that spacesuit" Musk said. “What today is about is reigniting the dream of space, and getting people fired up about the future. It’s one of those things—everyone from all walks of life, from all parts of the political spectrum, in the United States and elsewhere, should be really excited that this is a thing made by humans, for humans.”
The excitement from NASA was similar. “We need a new generation of Elon Musks,” Bridenstine said. “I think we’re going to see these models of doing business with public-private partnerships apply not just to low Earth orbit, which is what we’re doing today, but we’re taking this model onto the Moon, and even to Mars.” Demo-2 kicks off NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which will send astronauts into space through partnerships with SpaceX and Boeing, whose Starliner capsule launch date is currently unclear.
Streaming viewers heard astronauts call out to “SpaceX,” as opposed to the more familiar “Houston” of past launches.
The pomp that would normally come with a historic launch was also somewhat dampened, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Although Benkhen and Hurley nodded to Musk’s several companies by taking Tesla Model X cars to the runway, many SpaceX engineers who have spent years working towards this moment were unable to attend.
International implications — That SpaceX is an American company was made loud and clear throughout the runup to the launch. #LaunchAmerica was the hashtag of the week, which hammered home the international implications of the launch. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the revamped Russian space program, Roscosmos, has enjoyed a strong relationship with NASA.
It’s a relationship between political adversaries that has held steady even at moments of great tension. It’s also a relationship that has earned Russia millions of dollars — a seat on a Russian Soyuz rocket costs $90 million — and one the United States believes could be done with greater cost efficiency and in-country.
It’s a consideration that Musk could appreciate. His decision to build SpaceX rockets in America came in 2001, after he tried to buy Russian rockets but balked at the price tag.
In the future, NASA hopes to maintain its rocket diplomacy by trading seats with Russia.
"If we don't launch on their rockets and they don't launch on our rockets, we could end up in a situation where the only people on the space station would be Americans or the only people on the space station would be Russian," Bridenstine told news site Axios earlier this year.
On Saturday after the launch, Bridenstine gushed, "we have done it." President Donald Trump flew to Florida on Air Force One to witness the launch. President Trump became the first sitting president to watch a space launch live since Bill Clinton.
This story developing and was last updated at 3:59 p.m. on Saturday, May 30, 2020.