SpaceX rocket with unmanned United States capsule blasts off for space station

SpaceX rocket with unmanned United States capsule blasts off for space station

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard is seen as it is rolled out of the horizontal integration facility at Launch Complex 39A as preparations continue for the Demo-1 mission at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, February 28, 2019.

NASA has awarded SpaceX and Boeing Co $6.8 billion to build competing rocket and capsule systems to launch astronauts into orbit from American soil for the first time since the US Space Shuttle was retired from service in 2011.

The capsule is scheduled to reach the ISS by Sunday at around 1100 GMT, with a return to Earth next Friday.

It blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida - the first time in eight years such a launch took place in the US. After all, you don't want to send astronauts into space if you can't get them back in one piece.

Nasa chief Jim Bridenstine said it was a new era where "we are looking forward to be being one customer, as an agency and as a country".

"We're going to be a customer", Bridenstine told reporters.

The Dragon will approach the 400km-high station from the front and use its computers and sensors to guide itself in. While Falcon 9's have completed many successful lift-offs, today's was special because it is the first outing for SpaceX's new Crew Dragon module, created to take astronauts into orbit. They are expected to be on the capsule's crew this summer.

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But the program has suffered delays as safety requirements are much more stringent for manned flights than for unmanned missions to deploy satellites. But he stressed it was more important to move deliberately so "we get it right".

"We're only partway through the mission", Musk said. The capsule is equipped with a life support system and an emergency abort system. Solar cells are mounted on the spacecraft for electrical power, as opposed to the protruding solar wings on cargo Dragons.

Dragon 2 is a reusable spacecraft designed as a successor to the Dragon space freighter.

"We instrumented the crap out of that vehicle", said Kathy Lueders, the manager of NASA's Commercial Crew program.

"People have gone to space station on Soyuz", he said this morning during a post-launch press conference here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, referring to the handful of private citizens who have flown aboard Russia's Soyuz spacecraft (and reportedly plunked down between $20 million and $40 million apiece to do so).

Saturday's flight "is the next critical step in putting people on Dragon", he said.

Despite SpaceX's success at recovering and reusing its rockets, NASA is insisting on brand new boosters from SpaceX for the crew capsule flights. "You guys think it's a good vehicle, right?" he asked Behnken and Hurley, seated alongside him.

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