NASA returns to space with help from SpaceX

Three, two, one, zero. Ignition. Liftoff of the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon! Go NASA! Go SpaceX! Godspeed, Bob and Doug!”

With those words from NASA and with the bright flare and thundering roar of powerful rockets, a new era of U.S. spaceflight began as astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida ⁠— the first crewed launch from U.S. soil in nearly a decade.

As the country remains socially distanced because of the coronavirus and rocked by violent protests following the police killing of George Floyd, NASA hoped the two men blasting into orbit would give the nation something to unite around.

The successful launch, which happened on the second attempt after the first was scrubbed last week due to stormy Florida weather, was the fruition of a partnership between NASA and the private space-faring company, SpaceX.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley took off from the Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 3:22 p.m. EST and will dock with the International Space Station orbiting 250 miles above the Earth’s surface. The test mission, the first crewed launch from U.S. soil since the space shuttle program was shut down in 2011 after nearly a decade of reliance on Russian soyuz rockets, was carried out on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft powered by Falcon 9 rockets.

The Falcon 9 first stage reusable rocket returned safely to the Earth about 10 minutes after the launch as the astronauts carried into space. The second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket separated from the Crew Dragon capsule a couple minutes later well over 100 miles above the Earth as the Crew Dragon vehicle traveled at 16,000 miles per hour, entered into low Earth orbit, and continued on its journey to the International Space Station. The astronauts will use boost burns to configure their trajectory and are scheduled to arrive at the space station Sunday morning.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator since 2018, celebrated the successful launch in a quick NASA TV interview.

“I’ve heard that rumble before, but it’s a whole different feeling when it’s your team on that rocket. And they are America’s team. This is Launch America. This is everything that America has to offer in its purest form,” Bridenstine said. “And times are tough right now — there is no doubt. We’ve got the coronavirus pandemic. We have other challenges as a country. But I hope this moment in time is an opportunity for everybody to reflect on humanity and what we can do when we work together, when we strive, and when we achieve. And if this can inspire a young child to become the next Elon Musk or the next Jeff Bezos or the next Sir Richard Branson, then that is what this is all about.”

During a Tuesday prelaunch press conference, Bridenstine said that the launch was about the future of U.S. spaceflight, the commercialization of space, and progress toward returning to the moon and landing on Mars.

“We are once again launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. And this is a big moment in time,” Bridenstine said. “Unfortunately, we’re in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Our country has been through a lot, but this is a unique moment where all of America can take a moment and look at our country do something stunning again.”

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, said Wednesday the launch was “one of those things that I think everyone, from all walks of life, from all spots of the political spectrum, in the United States and elsewhere should be really excited that this is a thing made by humans for humans.”

This combination of undated photos made available by SpaceX shows NASA astronauts Doug Hurley, left, and Bob Behnken in their spacesuits.

(SpaceX via AP)

“What it’s about is we want to inspire kids to say that one day they want to wear that uniform and they want to wear that spacesuit,” Musk said. “And get them fired up: ‘Yeah, I want to be an astronaut. Yeah, I want to work in air space engineering, I want to advance spaceflight.’ And I think what today is about is reigniting the dream of space and getting people fired up about the future and excited.”

Bridenstine echoed Musk’s sentiments about the launch providing a fractured country a way to bridge the political divide.

“Here we are in the middle of this coronavirus pandemic, and we have this opportunity to unite people again,” Bridenstine said. “And that’s really what this launch is gonna do. It’s not just gonna unite Republicans and Democrats — it’s gonna unite the world.”

President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence arrived at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Air Force One on Saturday afternoon to watch the launch in person.

SpaceX used the Falcon 9 reusable two-stage rocket to power the astronauts into space. This rocket system, which stands at 229 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter, had been used in 83 prior launches and 44 landings and generates over 1.7 million pounds of thrust at sea level. The rocket will carry the astronauts within the Crew Dragon spacecraft, a 26-foot high capsule that is 13 feet in diameter, which had been used in 22 other launches and 21 visits to the International Space Station.

SpaceX Falcon 9
A SpaceX Falcon 9 sits on Launch Pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

(David J. Phillip/AP)

Behnken, a veteran of two space shuttle flights, was selected to be an astronaut by NASA in 2000 after spending years in the Air Force flying F-22s and other planes, gaining over 1,500 flight hours in more than 25 different aircraft. Hurley, also an astronaut since 2000 and a two-time space shuttle crew member, spent over two decades flying Marine Corps jets, with over 5,500 hours in over 25 planes. The NASA chief called the duo “American heroes.”

“They are laying the foundation for a new era in human space flight,” Bridenstine said. “It’s an era in human space flight where more space is gonna be available to more people than ever before. We envision a future where low earth orbit is entirely commercialized, where NASA is one customer of many customers, where we have numerous providers that are competing.”

Alluding to the Apollo missions to the moon, Bridenstine said that NASA’s Artemis program was designed to get the U.S. back to the moon for good — and then to Mars and beyond.

“We are proving out a business model, a public-private partnership business model, that ultimately will allow us to go to the moon, this time sustainably. In other words, we’re gonna go to the moon to stay,” Bridenstine said. “And this time when we go to the moon, we get to go with all of America, a highly diverse, highly qualified astronaut core, that includes women … And all of this is ultimately for a purpose, and that is to get to Mars.”

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