Elon Musk's SpaceX takes major step towards reviving United States astronaut presence

The launch of SpaceX's new Crew Dragon astronaut capsule was a dress rehearsal for the first manned test flight. AFP  Jim WATSON

The launch of SpaceX's new Crew Dragon astronaut capsule was a dress rehearsal for the first manned test flight. AFP Jim WATSON

Elon Musk, the CEO of US SpaceX aerospace company, said on Friday, after the launch of the SpaceX-manufactured Dragon 2 spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), that, of all the other stages of the mission, he was most of all anxious about Dragon 2's docking with the ISS and its return to Earth.

Elon Musk sees a bright and busy future for SpaceX's newly debuted Crew Dragon capsule. Today, SpaceX launched a new Crew Dragon capsule to demonstrate their readiness for manned spaceflight.

The space station's three-member crew was expected to greet the capsule, carrying 400 pounds of supplies and test equipment, early Sunday morning, NASA said.

Looking on from Kennedy's Launch Control were the two NASA astronauts who will strap in as early as July for the second space demo, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.

Since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA has been unable to fly people to space and has been forced to rely on Russian Federation to ferry its astronauts to the space station, the orbiting laboratory about 250 miles above the Earth. So, that is certainly going to be something new that we haven't done before. That includes interior life-support systems, autonomous docking capability, an integrated launch escape system, and solar panels built into the spacecraft itself. That's the main reason he founded SpaceX in 2002, the billionaire entrepreneur has said repeatedly over the years - to help humanity become a multiplanet species.

"This is a critically important event in American history", the head of the United States space agency, Jim Bridenstine, told reporters on Friday, with the rocket and capsule visible behind him on the legendary launch pad where the Apollo missions to the Moon began. The SpaceX company employees cheered until the capsule reached orbit.

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SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule, its first spacecraft created to carry humans, took flight for the first time Saturday. "Right now, the date is July and that's what we're planning for, but if we change that date we'll make sure people know when it's the right time". But over the longer haul, Musk said, he'd like to open Crew Dragon to space tourists as well.

While the Dragon spacecraft launched successfully Saturday, the mission still has several significant hurdles to clear.

Boeing also received a contract in 2014 to develop a space vessel, the Starliner. Musk said the redesigned capsule has "hardly a part in common" with its predecessor.

Bridenstine said he was "100 per cent confident" those flights would happen this year.

The launch marks the first under NASA's commercial crew program.

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

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