The demonstration of a new US system to get astronauts into orbit is under way.
The SpaceX company has launched a capsule designed to carry people from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
mission is uncrewed for this flight, but if it goes well, the American
space agency is likely to approve the system for regular astronaut use
from later this year.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk said this could be the first step towards opening space travel to commercial customers.
Not since the retirement of the shuttles in 2011 has the US been able to put humans in orbit.
It has been paying to use Russian Soyuz vehicles instead.
Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew capsule lifted off from Kennedy’s
historic Pad 39A at the precise planned time of 02:49 EST (07:49 GMT).
The 11-minute ascent put the Dragon on a path to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday.
Who is this character Ripley?
Because this is just a demonstration, there are no astronauts aboard – but there is a “test dummy”.
in a spacesuit and sitting next to a window, this anthropomorphic
simulator is fitted with sensors around the head, neck, and spine.
It will gather data on the type of forces that humans will experience when they get to ride in the spacecraft.
For the California company, this mission is a key
milestone in its short history. Mr Musk, a technology entrepreneur and
engineer, set up the organisation with the specific intention of taking
people into space.
“It’s been 17 years to get to this point, from
2002 to now. To be frank, I’m a little emotionally exhausted because it
was super stressful,” he told reporters immediately after the launch.
focus has been on serving Nasa’s needs but once Dragon is in regular
operation, I think we will seek commercial customers of which the Nasa
administrator, and Nasa in general, has been very supportive.”
Media captionMeet the man who inspired Iron Man’s alter ego Tony Stark
Mr Musk said those customers could include private citizens
going to the ISS, just as they have done on Soyuz vehicles in the past.
The Dragon crew capsule is a variant on the ISS cargo freighter flown by SpaceX.
include life-support systems, obviously; and more powerful thrusters to
push the vessel to safety if something goes wrong with a rocket during
an ascent to orbit.
It also has four parachutes instead of the freighter’s three to control the return to Earth.
How has Nasa changed since the shuttle?
Nasa is essentially now contracting out crew transport to SpaceX.
in the past, Nasa engineers would have top-down control of all aspects
of vehicle design and the agency would own and operate the hardware –
the relationship with industry has been put on a completely new footing.
Today, Nasa sets broad requirements and industry is given plenty of latitude in how it meets those demands.
Agency officials still check off every step, but the approach is regarded as more efficient and less costly.
chief, Jim Bridenstine, stressed on Saturday that the re-introduction
of American crew transport did not mean an end to cooperation with
“We want to make sure that we keep our partnership with
Russia which has been very strong for a long period of time, going all
the way back to the Apollo-Soyuz era,” he said.
“But we also want
to make sure we have our own capability to get back and forth to the
International Space Station, so that we can have this strong partnership
where they can launch on our rockets and we can launch on their
How should this mission play out?
After being taken to orbit, the Dragon makes its own way to the station using onboard thrusters.
of the big differences between this mission and standard cargo flights
is the mode of approach and attachment to the ISS. Freighters come up
under the orbiting lab and are grappled by a robotic arm and pulled into
a berthing position.
On this occasion, we will see the crew
version of Dragon approach the station at the bow and dock
automatically, using a new design of connection ring. Arrival is set for
11:00 GMT on Sunday.
ISS astronauts will be watching closely to see that the capsule behaves as it should.
Dragon is expected to stay at the station until Friday. The current
plan has it undocking, firing its thrusters to come out of orbit, and
splashing down at roughly 13:45 GMT.
Kirk Shireman, the manager of
Nasa’s ISS programme, said: “You’ll hear us talk about this being a
flight test; it absolutely is, although we view it also as a real
mission, a very critical mission.
“The ISS still has three people onboard so this mission coming up to the ISS for the first time has to work; it has to work.”
is also working with Boeing on crew transport. The company has
developed a capsule of its own called the Starliner. This will have its
equivalent demo flight in the next couple of months.