Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 June 2019

SpaceX astronaut capsule lifts off for ISS test mission

The mission is a key step towards resuming manned space flights from US soil

NASA and SpaceX celebrated the successful launch Saturday of a new astronaut capsule on a week-long round trip to the International Space Station - a key step towards resuming manned space flights from US soil after an eight-year break.

This time around, the only occupant on board SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule was a dummy named Ripley - but NASA plans to put two astronauts aboard later this year.

The new capsule blasted off aboard the Falcon 9 rocket built by SpaceX - run by billionaire Elon Musk - at 2:49 am (11.49am UAE) from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, lighting up the coastline.

Eleven minutes later, the confirmation came from SpaceX mission control: "Dragon separation confirmed."

That triggered cheers at the firm's headquarters and at the Kennedy Space Center.

The capsule is scheduled to reach the ISS by Sunday at around 1100 GMT, with a return to Earth next Friday.

It will splash down in the Atlantic Ocean, from where it will be brought back to Cape Canaveral.

In another success, the rocket's first stage returned to Earth, landing on a platform 500 kilometres (310 miles) off the Florida coast in the Atlantic. It marks the 35th such recovery by SpaceX.

NASA had announced weather conditions were good head of the launch, with an 80 per cent chance of favorable weather.

SpaceX chief Elon Musk, who founded the company in 2002, was at the space center for the occasion.

"This is a critically important event in American history," the head of the US space agency, Jim Bridenstine, told reporters on Friday, with the rocket and capsule visible behind him on the legendary launch pad where the Apollo missions to the Moon began.

"We're on the precipice of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil again for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011."

The excitement was palpable at Cape Canaveral, from the space-fan volunteers guiding media on site, to the tourists who came to watch.

"It's been a long eight years," the Kennedy Space Center's director Bob Cabana, a former astronaut himself, said as SpaceX employees milled around the rocket.

After the shuttle program was shuttered in July 2011 following a 30-year run, NASA began outsourcing the logistics of its space missions.

It pays Russia to get its people up to the ISS orbiting research facility at a cost of $82 million per head for a round trip.

In 2014, the US space agency awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing for them to take over this task.

But the program has suffered delays as safety requirements are much more stringent for manned flights than for unmanned missions to deploy satellites.

"We're going to have more access to space at a better cost than at any point in human history," said Bridenstine, adding he was "100 percent confident" that a manned flight would happen by year's end.

Updated: March 2, 2019 03:15 PM

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