U.S. astronauts Douglas Hurley and Bob Behnken docked SpaceX’s newly designed Crew Dragon capsule at the International Space Station on Sunday.
Hurley, 53, and Behnken, 49, both former military test pilots who joined NASA in 2000, lifted off into space at 3:22 p.m. EDT, Saturday afternoon, from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
It was the first spaceflight on a private rocket, nearly a decade after the last launch of astronauts from American territory.
“Let’s light this candle,” commander Hurley said before liftoff, words used by Alan Shepard on America's first human spaceflight, in 1961.
The California-based SpaceX is owned by its founder, billionaire Elon Musk.
"I'm really quite overcome with emotion," Musk said. "It's been 18 years working towards this goal. "This is hopefully the first step on a journey towards civilization on Mars," the SpaceX founder said.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence flew to Florida for the launch, the second time this week. They were joined by more than 3 million viewers online, according to NASA’s count, and more spectators who lined beaches and roads nearby to witness the launch.
“I’m so proud of the people at NASA, all the people that worked together, public and private. When you see a sight like that it’s incredible,” Trump said after liftoff.
At a rally held a short time later at NASA's massive 525-foot-high Vehicle Assembly Building, the president added his congratulations and an update on the astronauts.
“Today, as we gather in this special place to celebrate not only the launch of a new spacecraft but also our nation's triumphant bold and triumphant return to the stars,” he said. “It’s a special day. Moments ago, the world bore witness to the flight of the first new manned U.S. spacecraft in nearly 40 years since the space shuttle launched in 1981 — a long time ago. I am thrilled to announce that the SpaceX Dragon capsule has successfully reached low Earth orbit and that our astronauts are safe and sound.”
The vice president commended Musk for a “job well done.”
Pence said that as the nation deals with the coronavirus and the racial strife, "I believe with all my heart that millions of Americans today will find the same inspiration and unity of purpose that we found in those days in the 1960s” during Apollo.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said it was a "great day" for NASA and SpaceX and an "important milestone for the nation."
Bridenstine cautioned, however, saying “we're not celebrating yet. We will celebrate when they're home safely."
The first launch attempt scheduled for last Wednesday was postponed because of stormy weather in the vicinity of the Kennedy Space Center in the southeastern state of Florida.
Astronauts were last launched into space from the U.S. in 2011, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, retired its space shuttle fleet, forcing the U.S. to rely on partnerships with Russia’s space agency to carry U.S. astronauts to the orbiting ISS, 402 kilometers above earth.