CAPE CANAVERAL- Opening a new era in American spaceflight, a Falcon 9 rocket streaked into space early Saturday, boosting the company’s first Crew Dragon spacecraft into orbit on an unpiloted test flight, the first launch of a commercially developed capsule intended to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Lighting up the deep overnight sky for miles around, the rocket’s nine first stage engines ignited and throttled up to full thrust at 2:49 a.m. EST (GMT-5), generating 1.7 million pounds of thrust and quickly thundering skyward from launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.
Looking on 3.2 miles from the launch pad in the SpaceX launch control room were astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, who plan to be aboard the next Crew Dragon when it takes off on the program’s second test flight in the mid-summer timeframe. That will be the first launch of American astronauts aboard a U.S. rocket since the shuttle program ended in 2011.
“I can’t begin to explain to you how exciting it is for a test pilot to be on the first flight of a vehicle,” Hurley, a shuttle veteran and former Marine Corps F/A-18 test pilot, told reporters before launch. “We’ll be ready when SpaceX and NASA are ready for us to fly it.”
That will depend on how the unpiloted Crew Dragon does this week during the Commercial Crew Program’s initial launch, a flight intended to thoroughly test the spacecraft’s myriad systems before trusting it to carry astronauts.
The mission got off to a spectacular start, thrilling thousands of tourists and area residents expected to gather along Florida’s “Space Coast.”