Until now, only a handful of nations have ever launched humans into space. That has changed. Elon Musk's SpaceX became the first commercial company to send NASA astronauts on their way. The Crew Dragon spacecraft carried Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on a ride to the International Space Station.
Hurley and Behnken are the first NASA crew to lift off from U.S. soil on a U.S.-built vehicle since the Space Shuttle program ended nine years ago.
"Let's light this candle," Hurley said just before ignition, borrowing the historic words used by Alan Shepard on America's first human spaceflight, in 1961.
The two men are scheduled to arrive Sunday at the International Space Station, 250 miles above Earth, for a stay of up to four months, after which they will come home with a Right Stuff-style splashdown at sea, something the world hasn't witnessed since the 1970s.
Nine minutes after liftoff, the rocket's first-stage booster landed, as designed, on a barge a few hundred miles off the Florida coast, to be reused on another flight.
"Thanks for the great ride to space," Hurley told SpaceX ground control. The two crewmates batted around a floating blue dinosaur plush toy doubling as a dragon, demonstrating that they had reached zero gravity.
SpaceX controllers at Hawthorne, California, cheered and applauded wildly, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine declared: "This is everything that America has to offer in its purest form."
"It's incredible, the power, the technology," said U.S. President Donald Trump, who was at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida for the launch. "That was a beautiful sight to see."
For Musk, the launch represents another milestone for the reusable rockets his company pioneered to make spaceflight less costly and more frequent. And it marks the first time commercially developed space vehicles – owned and operated by a private entity rather than NASA – have carried Americans into orbit.
The last time NASA launched astronauts into space aboard a brand new vehicle was 40 years ago at the start of the Space Shuttle program.
Saturday's mission is technically considered a test flight. The next SpaceX voyage to the space station, set for the end of August, will have a full, four-person crew: three Americans and one Japanese.
The first attempt to launch the rocket, on Wednesday, was called off with less than 17 minutes to go in the countdown because of lightning. On Saturday, stormy weather threatened another postponement for most of the day, but the skies began to clear just in time.
The flight ended a nine-year launch drought for NASA. Ever since it retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has relied on Russian spaceships launched from Kazakhstan to take U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.
Over the past few years, NASA outsourced the job of designing and building its next generation of spaceships to SpaceX and Boeing, awarding them 7 billion U.S. dollars in contracts in a public-private partnership aimed at driving down costs and spurring innovation. Boeing's spaceship, the Starliner capsule, is not expected to fly astronauts until early 2021.
First success after previous setbacks
The first flight was originally targeted for around 2015. But the project encountered bureaucratic delays and technical setbacks. A SpaceX capsule exploded on the test stand last year. And Boeing’s first Starliner capsule ended up in the wrong orbit and was nearly destroyed during a test flight in December.
For SpaceX and the future of public-corporate space exploration, the stakes on Saturday were extraordinarily high.
With the spaceship finally on its way, Musk choked up talking about the weight of his responsibility for the astronauts' lives and their families and noted that the return to Earth is more dangerous in some ways than ascent, "so we don't want to declare victory yet."
Still, Musk said he wasn't nervous about the launch on Saturday the way he was during the previous attempt.
"Today, I don't know, it felt like just the fates were aligned," he said.
Mission amid coronavirus
The mission unfolded amid the gloom of the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans, and racial unrest across the U.S. over the case of George Floyd, the handcuffed black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Attendance inside Kennedy Space Center was strictly limited because of the coronavirus, and the crowd amounted to only a few thousand. By NASA's count, over 3 million viewers tuned in online.
Despite NASA's insistence that the public stay safe by staying home, spectators flocked to beaches and roads, some of them not wearing masks or keeping six feet from others.
Because of the coronavirus, the astronauts were kept in quasi-quarantine for more than two months. The SpaceX technicians who helped them get into their spacesuits wore masks and gloves that made them look like black-clad ninjas. And the SpaceX controllers had masks and were seated far apart.