SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station on Sunday on the first full-fledged taxi flight for NASA by a private company.
The Falcon rocket thundered into the night from Kennedy Space Center with three Americans and one Japanese, the second crew to be launched by SpaceX.
The Dragon capsule on top — named Resilience by its crew in light of this year’s many challenges, most notably COVID-19 — reached orbit nine minutes later. It is due to reach the space station late Monday and remain there until spring.
“By working together through these difficult times, you’ve inspired the nation, the world, and in no small part the name of this incredible vehicle, Resilience,” Commander Mike Hopkins said right before liftoff.
Once reaching orbit, he radioed: “That was one heck of a ride.”
Sidelined by the coronavirus himself, SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk was forced to monitor the action from afar.
Sunday’s launch follows by just a few months SpaceX’s two-pilot test flight. It kicks off what NASA hopes will be a long series of crew rotations between the U.S. and the space station, after years of delay.
The flight to the space station — 27 1/2 hours door to door — should be entirely automated, although the crew can take control if needed. SpaceX had to deal with pressure pump spikes once the capsule reached orbit, but quickly resolved the issue.
Vice President Mike Pence, chairman of the National Space Council, joined NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to watch the launch.
“I didn’t start breathing until about a minute after it took off,” Pence said during a stop at SpaceX Launch Control to congratulate the workers.
While Bridenstine noted it was a beautiful launch, he stressed: “This is a six-month mission and it’s the first of many.”
“When you’re flying into space, there’s always risk and we will always be diligent,” he added.