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2020-05-31 15:42:37

Ushering in a new era in the American space program, two veteran astronauts blasted off Saturday aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon en route to the International Space Station. Sunday morning they linked up with the space station.

The flawless liftoff was the first launch of American astronauts from U.S. soil in nearly nine years, since the final flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2011. This is also the first manned flight for the SpaceX Crew Dragon and the first time a commercial spacecraft has carried NASA astronauts into orbit.

Watch Saturday’s launch in the video below:

The crew, commander Douglas Hurley and astronaut Robert Behnken, both joined the astronaut corps in 2000. Hurley, a former Marine fighter pilot and test pilot, is a veteran of two previous space missions, serving as pilot of the final space shuttle flight in 2011. Behnken, a former Air Force test pilot, has logged more than 708 hours in space on two shuttle missions and completed six spacewalks. 

The Crew Dragon was carried aloft by a Falcon 9 rocket with 1.7 million pounds of thrust from its first stage engines. After powering the spacecraft out of the lower atmosphere, SpaceX successfully landed the first stage on an off-shore droneship while the second stage continued the climb to orbit. 

Twelve minutes after liftoff, the Crew Dragon was be released to fly on its own for the rest of the 19-hour trip to the International Space Station There, they’ll join a crew of three others, including commander Chris Cassidy and two Russian cosmonauts, whose work on the orbiting station is largely devoted to scientific research in microgravity.

According to the NASA mission schedule, after docking, the crew will open the hatch at 12:45 p.m. and join the space station trio for a welcome ceremony at 1:15 p.m.

Hurley and Behnken are expected to remain aboard the station for at least six weeks and possibly as long as four months. Their exact return date will be determined later, after flight controllers see how the Crew Dragon capsule’s solar cells hold up in the space environment. Weather conditions for the splashdown landing will also be a factor.

The mission, known as Demo 2, is the culmination of a six-year, multibillion-dollar NASA effort to end its reliance on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from the space station. The Commercial Crew Program will eventually include launches by Boeing as well as SpaceX.

The launch would normally be expected to draw huge crowds of spectators to Florida’s “Space Coast,” but the Kennedy Space Center remains closed to non-essential personnel due to the coronavirus pandemic. President Trump and Vice President Pence traveled to Florida to watch the launch in person.

The astronauts’ families were also there for the big day, but with only a handful of invited guests instead of a large gathering of supporters. Both Hurley and Behnken are married to fellow astronauts: Hurley’s wife, Karen Nyberg, recently retired from NASA after two space missions, including a long-duration stay aboard the space station, while Behnken’s wife, Megan McArthur, helped repair the Hubble Space Telescope during a final shuttle servicing mission in 2009.

Arriving in Florida with a flyby of your dad’s spaceship on the launch pad… Priceless. #LaunchAmerica #CrewDragon pic.twitter.com/qnFIfPsHkM

— Karen L. Nyberg (@AstroKarenN) May 24, 2020

“We were looking forward to celebrating with lots of people who could physically come to the Cape and enjoy watching the launch in person,” McArthur said earlier this month. “But I have gotten so many notes of support from people all over the country saying hey, we’re still going to be with you, we’re going to be watching from home, but we’re still cheering Bob and Doug on, you know — go, Dragon! — and so people are still really, really excited about it.”

Reporting by CBS News space consultant Bill Harwood.

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