KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – Nearly nine years ago, NASA astronaut Doug Hurley landed at Kennedy Space Center on space shuttle Atlantis and knew he would be one of the last to launch from Florida’s Coast for years. But what he didn’t know is that he would also be one of the first to return human spaceflight to U.S. soil.
On Saturday, Hurley returned to space, along with fellow NASA astronaut Bob Behnken, but this time it was at the beginning of a journey, not the end, and at the hands of SpaceX, a private space company founded a decade ago by billionaire Elon Musk.
Founded with the goal of human space exploration, SpaceX successfully accomplished that Saturday when it launched the two NASA astronauts on board its Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket at 3:22 p.m. About 10 minutes later the spacecraft successfully was in orbit.
“I’m quite overcome with emotions on this day," Musk said hours after the launch. "It’s been 18 years working towards this goal so it’s hard to believe that it’s happened.”
For nearly a decade, NASA astronauts have flown halfway around the world, training in Star City, Russia, before launching on a Russian rocket and spacecraft to the space station.
[Live video and updates: NASA astronauts liftoff in SpaceX Crew Dragon from Florida]
In contrast, this week Behnken and Hurley took a quick two-hour flight from Houston, Texas, to Kennedy Space Center, where they prepared to launch on a brand-new spacecraft built in the U.S. and launching from American soil.
Behnken and Hurley are veteran astronauts, with 1,400 spaceflight hours between them. They were both part of the 2000 astronaut class where they met their wives.
Both astronauts have young sons. Hurley’s son 10-year-old Jack and Behnken’s son 6-year-old Theo were there along with their moms, former astronaut Karen Nyberg and NASA astronaut Megan McArthur were there to say goodbye to the astronauts as they left the KSC Operations and Checkout building before heading to the launchpad.
Musk said he spoke to their families, who had entrusted his company to deliver them home safely.
“We’ve done everything we can to make sure your dads come back OK,” the SpaceX founder said he told the boys.
During live commentary of the launch SpaceX engineer Lauren Lyons said the astronauts are known as “the dads” by their team.
“They’re not a payload, they’re a team,” Lyons said.
The launch marks the beginning of a new era in U.S. human spaceflight, one shouldered by NASA and commercial companies like SpaceX instead of by the American taxpayer alone.
“It is absolutely our honor to be part of this effort to get US back into the launch business,” Hurley said minutes before liftoff.
After the astronauts were on their way to the ISS, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Hurley and Behnken had named their spacecraft Endeavor.
Under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the U.S. space agency will purchase rides from SpaceX and Boeing instead of shelling out $80 million a seat to Russia to delivery its astronauts to the ISS.
With SpaceX, it costs about $55 million a seat.
The launch from KSC’s Launch Complex 39A -- the same launch pad where Apollo 11 launched to the moon more than 50 years ago -- happened under less than optimal circumstances.
The weather was problematic for the first attempt, between several inches of rain prompting flood warnings around Central Florida. Weather also threatened to undo the second launch attempt, but a window of clear skies allowed Falcon 9 to soar through sending Crew Dragon on its journey.
Not to mention, the world is still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, taking the lives of more than 100,000 in the U.S. alone. Finally, the country faces a presidential election six months away. But space exploration has brought the nation together before during times of uncertainty.
NASA landed humans on the moon in the middle of the Vietnam War and ongoing civil rights abuses and protests.
“Here we are all these years later in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and we have this moment in time where we can unite people again,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “That’s really what this launch is going to do. It’s not just going to unite, you know, Republicans and Democrats, it’s going to unite the world.”
During the 30-year span of the space shuttle program, an astronaut launch would draw around 1 million spectators. Due to the global health crisis, launch fans were told to watch from the safety of their homes or if they traveled to the coast to avoid large crowds and maintain 6 feet, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Welcome aboard the @SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft!— NASA (@NASA) May 31, 2020
In this video from space, @AstroBehnken and @Astro_Doug reveal the name of their capsule: Endeavour. Take a look inside as the crew continues their journey to the @Space_Station: https://t.co/K9S5mejONx pic.twitter.com/mvH8UhE5FW
Despite the circumstances, the historic event drew visitors to the Space Coast anyway, fans gathered at popular viewing spots in Titusville, Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach. For some generations this was their first-time seeing people launch into space.
During the 19 hour journey to the International Space Station the astronauts will get a chance to eat, sleep and use the bathroom on the spaceship but NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders said sleep might be the hardest part.
“They’re going to get to try to sleep ... or they’re going to get to try to sleep," Lueders said. “And then tomorrow morning we’ll be approaching space station.”
The test mission isn’t over. Hurley and Behnken must next catch up to the ISS, dock and be greeted by their fellow NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian astronauts who await them.
The astronauts will arrive at the ISS for docking Sunday just before 10:30 a.m. where Cassidy will be waiting to welcome them.
It won’t be until both astronauts are home, reunited with their families that this test flight will be a true success, then SpaceX will have to do it all over again in August.