A rocket ship built by Elon Musk's SpaceX company thundered away from Earth with two Americans on Saturday, ushering in a new era in commercial space travel.
The two men are scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station on Sunday for a stay of up to four months, after which they will return to Earth in a Right Stuff-style splashdown at sea.
NASA's Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken rode skyward aboard a sleek, white-and-black, bullet-shaped Dragon capsule on top of a Falcon 9 rocket, lifting off at 3.22 pm from the same launch pad used to send the Apollo astronauts to the moon a half-century ago. Minutes later, they safely slipped into orbit.
"Let's light this candle," Hurley said just before ignition, borrowing the words used by Alan Shepard on America's first human spaceflight, in 1961.
The first Crew Dragon spacecraft commander, Dough Hurley is a retired US Marine Corps Colonel who has previously flown on two spaceflights. He served in the Navy as a fighter pilot and trained to fly on F/A-18 Hornet and became a test-pilot in 1997. He was selected to be an astronaut in the year 2000. Hurley made his first spaceflight in July 2009 as the pilot for STS-127 followed by STS-135 aboard space shuttle Atlantis, the last mission in July 2011.
Robert "Bob" Behnken is a US Air Force Colonel who is on his third trip to the space, having logged over 708 hours into orbit with over 37 hours of spacewalks. He flew into space with STS-123 in 2008 and STS-130 in 2010. Behnken has logged more than 1,500 flight hours and flown 25 different types of aircraft, according to his Nasa biography. He had been selected for the astronaut programme by Nasa in 2000.
On Saturday, stormy weather in Florida threatened another postponement for most of the day, but then the skies began to clear in the afternoon just in time. Nine minutes after liftoff, the 260-foot rocket's first-stage booster landed, as designed, on a barge a few hundred miles off the Florida coast, to be reused on another flight.
Ever since it retired the space shuttle in 2011, NASA has relied on Russian spaceships launched from Kazakhstan to take US astronauts to and from the space station.