On hand for the launch were President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, along with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, SpaceX founder Elon Musk and members of Congress.
“I think this is such a great inspiration for our country,” Trump told reporters after the launch, before taking a swipe at China over the 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 genius, the money … nobody does it like us. So it’s great to have this whole program back, and this is just the beginning. We have many more things to come.”
Bridenstine, speaking on NASA TV, said he hopes the launch will force Americans to reflect during these difficult times.
“This is everything America has to offer in its purest form,” the NASA chief said. “And times are tough right now. There is no doubt. We’ve got the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve got 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 strike and when we achieve,” he added.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive Democratic challenger, also lauded the achievement, which has been a decade in the making.
“This mission represents the culmination of work begun years ago, and which President Obama and I fought hard to ensure would become a reality,” Biden said in a statement.
Bridenstine restricted the number of VIPs who could attend due to the coronavirus epidemic and has repeatedly requested the public not descend on Kennedy Space Center to avoid throngs of spectators collecting on nearby beaches. But that appeal has largely gone unheeded this week, with reports of as many as 150,000 people gathering for the historic event.
Behnken and fellow astronaut Doug Hurley will join NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.
The first launch attempt on Wednesday was scrubbed because of bad weather. Saturday’s forecast looks only slightly better. The Space Force’s 45th Space Wing predicted Saturday morning that there was only a 50/50 chance the launch would take place.
The mission is the first crewed launch under a public-private partnership with NASA called the Commercial Crew program, under which the space agency plans to buy rides to space on commercially-owned vehicles that are also used to transport other nations’ astronauts, space entrepreneurs and even private citizens.
The launch is a “much awaited turning point in our new space age,” said Namira Salim, one of the founders of Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company that plans to fly later this year. “It is a giant leap not only for commercial spaceflight, but ushers a new era for human spaceflight which makes space affordable and accessible for commercial entities and spacefaring and emerging space nations.”
But it is also “inherently risky,” said George Nield, who served as the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation from 2008 to 2018.
“Since the dawn of the space age, more than 60 years ago, the United States has conducted 380 launches with people onboard,” he said. “Four of those have ended in tragedy. That works out to be about a one percent fatal accident rate for human space flight in the U.S., which means that it is roughly 10,000 times more dangerous than flying on a commercial airliner.”
SpaceX has also had its share of mishaps, including an explosion during an engine test on Friday in Texas of its Starship rocket. It also suffered a mission failure in 2015 during a cargo supply mission to the space station, a failure during a satellite launch in 2016, and a catastrophic engine fire that destroyed a Crew Dragon capsule last year.
Under the Commercial Crew program, Boeing is also developing a new capsule. The Starliner failed to reach the space station on a test flight without crew last year. It is scheduled to redo the test this summer before flying people onboard.
Bryan Bender contributed to this report.