KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — In the end, tumultuous skies failed to again rain on America’s triumphant return to space.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket broke through a layer of clouds right at 3:22 p.m. EDT, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley riding atop on a Crew Dragon astronaut capsule.
The moment was like one large sigh of relief, for the thousands of engineers who have dedicated nearly a decade to this program, for SpaceX founder Elon Musk who founded his company to take humans to space, for NASA which bet on a new commercial approach to human spaceflight and for the families of the two brave astronauts who took the ride.
There is more still ahead. Behnken and Hurley will spend 19 hours in space before reaching the International Space Station at 10:29 a.m. Sunday. They will spend between six and 16 weeks at the space station before splashing back down off the Florida coast in the Atlantic Ocean under parachutes.
Saturday’s flight ended a nine-year drought, since the space shuttle program ended in 2011, when America lost the capability of sending its own astronauts to space. In the meantime, Russia’s Soyuz rockets have transported U.S. crews to the ISS for about $80 million a seat.
In 2014, NASA contracted with SpaceX and Boeing to build human-rated vehicles that could reignite America’s dream of space. That program had already been working since the mid-2000s toward Saturday’s milestone: The first crewed test flight. SpaceX, ultimately, was the first to reach it.
It was a second attempt for SpaceX—a planned launch on Wednesday was scrapped due to persistent bad weather that hovered over the Space Coast into the launch window.
Saturday was also a challenging weather day, with lingering summer storms threatening to postpone another launch. But by mid-afternoon, the weather cleared enough at pad 39A to continue toward liftoff.
For the crews working the mission, a human flight carried with it the added heft of responsibility.
Ahead of the flight, the astronauts, wearing their sleek, black-and-white SpaceX spacesuits, said goodbye to their families outside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building just after the noon hour.
Behnken, 49, and Hurley, 53, both became astronauts together in 2000 and flew two space shuttle missions each, but never together. The two are close friends—Hurley was best man at Behnken’s wedding to fellow astronaut Megan McArthur—and both have young sons. Hurley is also married to another fellow astronaut, Karen Nyberg.
Behnken said he knows what his wife must be feeling at this moment. He, too, had to watch her launch on a space shuttle mission.
“There is just something different about watching a rocket launch when there are people on board,” Behnken said in a NASA video. ” … I can only tell you it’s multiplied significantly when it’s somebody that you know and somebody, of course, that’s a family member, it’s even multiplied more.”
Behnken and Hurley’s wives and sons were waiting for them when they walked out the historic doors in the Armstrong building for the first time together Saturday, heading toward two white Tesla Model X SUVs that later took them out to Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39A.
When they saw them, Hurley and Behnken held their arms wide, giving their families a virtual hug.
“I love you,” Behnken told Theo. “Are you going to be on good behavior? Are you going to listen to mommy and make her life easy?”
Theo nodded, wearing a navy “Team Bob” shirt.
“Let’s light this candle!” Theo shouted.
After the duo climbed into their Tesla, the NASA worm logo in the back window, Hurley lowered his back passenger window. Jack and Nyberg approached.
Jack, in a black “Hurley Support Crew” shirt, high-fived his dad.
Nyberg held her hand out and gave Hurley’s a squeeze.
If Elon Musk’s rocket company secures certification, Crew Dragon’s first operational mission could take off as soon as Aug. 30.
When Behnken and Hurley arrive at the station, they’ll collect an 8-by-12-inch flag from Chris Cassidy, the only American on board.
The flag flew on the first and last shuttle missions. Hurley was on board STS-135, the final shuttle flight on July 2011, part of the crew that last delivered it there to be picked up again when America returned to space on a commercial vehicle.
“This flag remains here today, waiting for Bob and Doug,” Cassidy said. “I can’t wait to look out the window and see my friends on close approach.”
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