Crew Dragon takes flight, bringing US closer to launching astronauts again

Falcon 9 blasts off with human-rated spacecraft

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – With SpaceX's future astronaut passengers looking on -- along with thousands of other spectators -- a Falcon 9 rocket launched a human-rated spacecraft Saturday from Kennedy Space Center before dawn.

For its first journey to the International Space Station, the commercial spacecraft, Crew Dragon, carried no crew. However, a sensor-laden, spacesuit-wearing mannequin named Ripley onboard will tell NASA what their astronauts will experience when the spacecraft is officially ready for live passengers.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said based on the sensors, Ripley likely experienced four and a half G-forces during launch to orbit.

The SpaceX spacecraft is an evolved version of the Dragon capsule the company has used more than a dozen times to launch supplies to and from the space station. However, Crew Dragon can seat up to seven and still carry several tons of supplies in a rear trunk.

Crew Dragon has "hardly a part in common with Dragon 1" and is "much more complex" than its predecessor, Musk said at a post-launch news conference.

The spacecraft's maiden voyage, known as Demo-1,  will provide invaluable data on the performance of the rocket, spacecraft, and ground systems, as well as on-orbit, docking and landing operations, according to NASA. It's a crucial step toward NASA certifying SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Falcon 9 launched at 2:49 a.m. from Space Launch Complex 39A for the International Space Station where it will dock on Sunday.

Thousands of space tourists arrived early in Titusville, Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach to claim their prime spots to view the early morning liftoff.

About 10 minutes after launch, Falcon 9's first-stage booster returned to Earth, landing on SpaceX's droneship, Of Course I Still Love You, floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

If this test flight goes smoothly and NASA certifies SpaceX's Crew Dragon to fly astronauts after an upcoming abort test, astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will be on the first flight of a commercial spacecraft to the International Space Station as soon as July. Both veteran astronauts were at Kennedy Space Center on Friday to watch their future ride to ISS take its first flight. They viewed the launch from the Launch Control Center firing room, along with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Musk.

"There's something really exciting about being the first and being able to be part of the mission coming out of this," Behnken said.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a demo Crew Dragon spacecraft on an uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station lifts off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday, March 2, 2019. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Hurley and Behnken both expressed confidence in SpaceX and Crew Dragon after seeing the liftoff and the commercial company work issues in real-time during the countdown.

"Every time we participate, it's amazing to see the team getting these ready to go," Hurley said. "Every launch, there are technical issues the team has to go back and solve in real time."

The SpaceX capsule will stay at the Space Station for five days, where astronauts living on the orbiting laboratory will remove about 400 pounds of supplies from Crew Dragon and add some research samples to return to Earth.

At the end of its first spaceflight, Crew Dragon will splash down in the Pacific Ocean, similar to Mercury and Apollo flights with astronauts.

"We’re going to do it ... the old-school way," Behnken said. "We're really excited to be on this flight and to take a splash down at the end."

Astronauts and NASA officials hold press conference about what successful first launch of Crew Dragon Capsule could mean for future of space exploration. (Image: Jeff Segers)

Years in the making, the commercial crew program will save NASA -- and taxpayers -- millions of dollars. The U.S. has been paying the Russian Space Agency to launch its crew to the space station since 2011. The cost of a seat on Russia's Soyuz rocket is $84 million.

NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop and launch U.S. astronauts in 2014. Saturday's launch is a critical step toward launching Americans from U.S. soil again.

"What today really represents is a new era in spaceflight," Bridenstine said after launch. "(NASA) is one customer of many customers in a robust commercial marketplace."

Boeing received $4.2 billion to build the CST-100 spacecraft and SpaceX received $2.6 billion to build its Dragon V2 spacecraft, or Crew Dragon.

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner space capsule will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The first flight without crew is slated for no earlier than April and a crewed launch in late summer.

From left to right: NASA Adminstator Jim Bridenstine, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and NASA astronaut Bob Behnken at Kennedy Space Center on March 2, 2019 after the sucessful first launch of the Crew Dragon. (Image: Emilee Speck/WKMG)

An exhausted Musk said the first crewed flight in July was "looking quite promising" after Saturday's successful launch.

SpaceX has come further than Musk anticipated since he founded Space Exploration Technologies Corp. in 2002.

"When we started SpaceX they said we would fail," Musk said. "We almost did, the first three launches failed and the fourth one we scrapped parts together."

But Musk said Saturday's achievement was due to "a crazy amount of hard work from a lot of people at SpaceX" and the U.S. space agency, adding "SpaceX would not be here without NASA."