SpaceX launched four astronauts to the International Space Station on Sunday in a spectacular evening liftoff from Cape Canaveral that came days after the company’s Dragon capsule became the first privately owned and operated spacecraft to be certified by NASA for human spaceflight.
SpaceX earned that designation and the right to undertake what NASA hopes will be regular missions to the space station and back after it completed a test flight of two astronauts earlier this year.
That May launch was the first of NASA astronauts from U.S. soil since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, forcing the United States to rely on Russia for flights to orbit for nearly a decade, according to the associated press.
With Sunday’s launch, NASA took another step toward a new era in human spaceflight in which private companies partner with the government to build and design spacecraft and rockets. And it marked a coming-of-age moment for SpaceX, the California company founded by Elon Musk that was once viewed as a maverick start-up but is now one of the space industry’s stalwarts and one of NASA’s most significant partners.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket ignited its nine engines and lifted off at 4:27 p.m. (PST) from launchpad 39A, the historic area of space real estate that hoisted the crew of Apollo 11 — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins — to the moon in 1969, as well as many space shuttle missions.
If all goes according to plan, the four astronauts aboard the capsule should reach the space station at about 8 p.m. (PST) tonight.