By Andy Pasztor 

Elon Musk's SpaceX and NASA blasted two astronauts into orbit, marking the first human launch from U.S. soil in nearly a decade and a new partnership between industry and government aimed at revitalizing the country's space ambitions.

Saturday's successful blastoff -- from the same launchpad at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., that sent Apollo crews to the moon during the height of the Cold War -- sought to highlight American persistence and scientific know-how even as the U.S. continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. It also is the first step seeking to establish the trajectory for space tourism, provide momentum for proposed public-private partnerships to explore the moon and eventually set the stage for longer ventures deeper into space.

The launch was the second attempt after bad weather foiled the mission initially scheduled Wednesday barely 17 minutes before liftoff. Even if the rest of the mission goes as smoothly as Saturday's events, such public-private partnerships face significant funding and technical challenges, starting with current uncertainties about making a profit from ventures outside the Earth's atmosphere.

Strapped into a reusable, gumdrop-shaped capsule called Crew Dragon, veteran astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley embarked on a scheduled 19-hour voyage to the international space station circling the globe 250 miles up, with President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence observing the fiery scene in person. The Space Exploration and Technologies Corp. Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 3:22 p.m. local time, successfully reaching initial orbit 12 minutes later. The crew is slated to remain at the international laboratory for at least two months, before returning with the capsule's parachute landing in the Atlantic.

The day before liftoff, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine drew a parallel between current national crises -- including Covid-19 and nationwide protests against police brutality toward black Americans -- to moon landings amid race riots and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations two generations ago. "NASA has a long history of doing stunning things in the middle of very difficult times," he told Bloomberg television.

The smooth countdown had its share of suspense nonetheless, as weather forecasts the evening before predicted only a 50-50 chance of acceptable conditions with rain in the vicinity and even a tornado warning. Dark, towering clouds and rain surrounded the pad during earlier portions of the countdown, but the weather improved dramatically about an hour before launch. The flight director declared the mission "go for launch," with no rain evident and weather conditions, including winds and clouds, projected to be acceptable.

During a chat with the crew earlier in the day, Mr. Bridenstine said the astronauts were joking with each other as they donned spacesuits. "They're trained, they're ready but they're also loose."

Technically a demonstration flight to test the capsule's performance and give the crew a chance to check out touch-screen controls and other systems, the liftoff featured fanfare reserved for a national celebration. But NASA officials asked local residents and space aficionados -- who normally throng nearby roads and the Kennedy site's visitor center to see historic launches -- to watch the festivities from home to avoid spreading the contagion.

Still, tickets to view the launch from the visitor center, which opened Thursday, sold out quickly. Despite weeks of repeated warnings, local tourism officials expected tens of thousands of people to flock to surrounding beaches to get a glimpse of the rocket.

With the SpaceX feat, NASA and its astronaut corps seek to become customers rather than day-to-day managers of transportation to orbit. SpaceX and Northrop Grumman Corp. already ship cargo to the space station.

The latest achievement is likely to boost Mr. Trump's broader space vision, as his administration revamps plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 and champions anticipated commercial ventures there -- and ultimately in other parts of the solar system as well. From a strategic perspective, White House and Pentagon officials also view the mission partly as a way to counter civil and military advances by China and Russia outside the atmosphere.

Partisan arguments on Capitol Hill have impeded some U.S. space initiatives, exacerbating NASA budget travails that threaten long-term program stability. The agency also has been notorious for multibillion-dollar cost overruns, nagging schedule delays and a bureaucracy that space experts say sometimes prizes protecting federal and contractor jobs above nimble engineering responses.

NASA has invested a total of more than $7 billion of taxpayer money so far in SpaceX and Boeing Co. efforts to resume astronaut liftoffs from a U.S. pad, and Mr. Bridenstine sees Saturday's event as recasting the path for America, other nations and industry to reach space. U.S. astronauts "need to have the capability of accessing space, not just for NASA but for all of humanity," he said this month.

Less than $3 billion of NASA's total investment in such commercial space taxis so far has gone to support SpaceX's work, based on agency documents and estimates of space experts. In its infancy, Mr. Musk's company avoided insolvency by snaring earlier NASA dollars to develop a cargo-transportation system to the space station. SpaceX hasn't publicly released details of its own spending on Crew Dragon, though it will be paid a fixed price for each astronaut delivered to orbit. Separately, experts have estimated SpaceX has invested nearly $1 billion to develop a heavy-lift booster.

Overall, NASA says commercial alternatives will save it some $20 billion, versus the projected development and testing costs for U.S. government-owned alternative vehicles that the Obama administration canceled a decade ago. But SpaceX's per-seat costs have ballooned from its preliminary projections, which promised lawmakers price tags a fraction of the cost of buying seats on Russian craft. That has been the only way NASA astronauts have been able to reach space during the nine years since the shuttle fleet was retired.

The closely held Southern California company, founded in 2002 and privately dismissed by veteran space executives throughout many of its early years, bested longtime NASA contractor Boeing for the honor of providing the initial ride to orbit. In coming months, Boeing is expected to conduct test flights of its own versions of space taxis to ferry astronauts to and from the station. Regular flights by both companies could be under way by 2021. "We are committed to having two partners," Mr. Bridenstine has said.

On Saturday, however, much of the emphasis was on the flawless countdown at the historic launch complex 39A, synonymous with U.S. space exploits. Capping weeks of media buildup and a barrage of NASA publicity, the crew underwent final medical checks, received weather and other briefings and then rode to the pad in a white, electric-powered sedan emblazoned with NASA logos and built by Tesla Inc., another of Mr. Musk's companies.

During early phases of building the Crew Dragon capsule, Mr. Musk's engineering and design teams favored a fully autonomous spacecraft. But NASA officials prevailed on SpaceX's leadership to include manual options, reflecting persistent technical arguments from agency experts on top of political sensitivities to protect the prestige and central role of astronauts.

Once the capsule is safely on its journey to catch up with the space station, Mr. Hurley, a Marine Corps colonel and mission commander, will use touch-screen controls to get the feel of manual handling. "It's obviously something that we want to make sure we understand completely for future crews," he told reporters recently.

The crew also will have the chance to report how well Crew Dragon's bathroom works, just as the astronauts will assess everything from the performance of life-support systems to mundane items such as placement of Velcro straps to keep items from floating around in the weightlessness of space.

With the White House betting so much politically on Wednesday's mission, the pressure on SpaceX and NASA won't diminish even after a successful rendezvous in orbit. "I will start sleeping again when they are back on the planet," Gwynne Shotwell, the company's president and chief operating officer, told reporters weeks ago.

Write to Andy Pasztor at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 30, 2020 15:55 ET (19:55 GMT)

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