SpaceX, NASA begin first space mission

Andrea Shalal and Joey Roulette
·2-min read

SpaceX, the rocket company of high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, has launched four astronauts on a flight to the International Space Station.

The fully-fledged mission is NASA's first sending a crew into orbit aboard a privately owned spacecraft.

SpaceX's newly designed Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, lifted off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 7.27 pm on Monday from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

An air leak caused an unexpected drop in capsule pressure less than two hours before launch but technicians said they conducted a successful check and the scheduled launch was still on.

The 27-hour ride to the space station, an orbiting laboratory 400 km above Earth, was originally scheduled to begin on Saturday.

However the launch was postponed for a day due to forecasts of gusty winds - remnants of Tropical Storm Eta - that would have made a return landing for the Falcon 9's reusable booster stage difficult, NASA said.

The astronauts donned their custom white flight suits and arrived at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad on schedule at 4.30 pm in three white Tesla SUVs, flanked by NASA and SpaceX personnel.

Vice-President Mike Pence attended the launch and said beforehand that under President Donald Trump, America had "renewed our commitment to lead in human space exploration".

President-elect Joe Biden Tweeted his congratulations, saying the launch was "a testament to the power of science".

NASA is calling the flight its first "operational" mission for a rocket and crew-vehicle system that was 10 years in the making.

It represents a new era of commercially developed spacecraft - owned and operated by a private entity rather than NASA - for sending Americans into orbit.

A trial flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon in August, carrying just two astronauts to and from the space station, marked NASA's first human space mission to be launched from US soil in nine years, following the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.

In the intervening years, US astronauts have had to hitch rides into orbit aboard Russia's Soyuz spacecraft.

The Resilience crew includes commander Mike Hopkins and fellow NASA astronauts, mission pilot Victor Glover and physicist Shannon Walker.

They will be joined by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, making his third trip to space after previously flying on the US shuttle in 2005 and Soyuz in 2009.

Musk, the billionaire SpaceX chief executive who is also CEO of electric carmaker and battery manufacturer Tesla, will likely not be watching the liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center launch control room as usual, NASA officials said.

Musk said on Saturday he "most likely" has a moderate case of COVID-19.