Either SpaceX or Boeing will have bragging rights as the first private company to launch humans into space on its own rocket, although plans call for rockets built by both companies to carry astronauts into space. But over the longer haul, Musk said, he'd like to open Crew Dragon to space tourists as well.
As many as seven astronauts could squeeze in, although four will be the norm once flights get going, allowing for a little cargo room.
"Today represents a new era in space flight" said Jim Bridenstine, head of the U.S. space agency who sees the launch as a step toward the privatization of low Earth orbit.
In a risky experiment, NASA years ago made a decision to outsource transportation to what's known as low Earth orbit to the private sector.
The rocket blasted off without incident at 2:49 am from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, lighting up Florida's coastline. "We have to come back, but so far it's worked. we've passed the riskiest items". "We've launched a lot of Falcon 9 rockets now". Though the company has shaken up the stodgy aerospace industry by designing rockets for rapid reusability, and pioneering entertaining, informative live streams featuring young engineers, it's never flown astronauts.
While Saturday's SpaceX test mission is a crucial step in the oft-delayed project, there are questions about whether NASA can achieve its 2019 flight goal of manned flight.
Now NASA said it is on the verge of recapturing some of the national pride that has been a hallmark of its human spaceflight program since the beginning of the Space Age.
NASA is also working with Boeing on a test flight of its Starliner capsule, also without a crew, scheduled for this year.
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It's a test flight without crew aboard, created to demonstrate the potential for carrying astronauts into orbit on a commercial spacecraft. "I can't begin to explain to you how exciting it is for a test pilot to be on a first flight of a vehicle". "I think that's something that we'll do, and NASA's very supportive of that".
There was no human crew on board, but the capsule was carrying a mannequin (named Ripley) so SpaceX can see if the capsule is safe enough for astronaut transport.
Two NASA astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, watched the spectacle from Kennedy's Launch Control. Shortly after liftoff, Musk asked them, "How do you feel about flying on it?" The response was positive.
On this occasion, we will see the crew version of Dragon approach the station at the bow and dock automatically, using a new design of connection ring.
The space agency is turning to private taxi rides to reduce its pricey reliance on Russian rockets to get astronauts to and from the space station. Musk said the redesigned capsule has "hardly a part in common" with its predecessor. But those concerns have been alleviated, NASA officials said this week.
The docking port itself is new and has never been used.
"The ISS still has three people onboard so this mission coming up to the ISS for the first time has to work; it has to work". It will remain docked there for about two weeks. Then comes the real test.
The first stage finished its job and separated about 2.5 minutes later before preparing to land on a drone ship downrange in the Atlantic Ocean.