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Live coverage: SpaceX plans overnight launch from Kennedy Space Center

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission will launch SpaceX’s tenth batch of Starlink broadband satellites. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

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Live coverage: SpaceX poised for midday launch from Kennedy Space Center

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission will launch SpaceX’s tenth batch of Starlink broadband satellites. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

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U.S. military makes adjustments in GPS launch to allow for SpaceX booster landing

The U.S. military’s third GPS 3-series satellite, designated SV03, is prepared for encapsulation inside the payload fairing of its SpaceX-built Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is preparing for liftoff Tuesday of its first mission for the U.S. Space Force, a launch from Cape Canaveral that will deploy a new GPS navigation satellite using a redesigned profile to allow the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage booster to reserve enough propellant for landing on SpaceX’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

The launch profile adjustment to make landing of the Falcon 9 booster possible ended up saving “several million dollars” for the military from the original SpaceX launch contract value of $96.5 million, according to Walter Lauderdale, mission director for the GPS SV03 launch from the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

The U.S. Space Force’s third GPS 3-series navigation satellite is set for liftoff from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad during a 15-minute launch window opening at 3:55 p.m. EDT (1955 GMT) Tuesday. There’s a 60 percent chance of favorable weather, according to a forecast issued by the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron.

Built by Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft will join two previous GPS 3 satellites launched by SpaceX in 2018 and by United Launch Alliance last year.

Tuesday’s mission is the first by SpaceX for the Space Force since the establishment of the new military branch in December.

“This is our first U.S. Space Force launch, and we’re really excited about it and hope this is the first of many, many of those launches in the future,” said Lee Rosen, SpaceX’s vice president of customer operations and integration.

During a nearly 90-minute launch sequence, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket head northeast from Cape Canaveral and propel the 9,505-pound (4,311-kilogram) GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft into an elliptical transfer orbit ranging between about 250 miles (400 kilometers) and 12,550 miles (20,200 kilometers) in altitude. The Falcon 9’s on-board computer will aim to release the GPS 3 SV03 satellite into an orbit inclined 55 degrees to the equator.

On SpaceX’s first launch of a GPS navigation satellite in December 2018, military officials required the launch company to devote all of the Falcon 9 rocket’s capacity to placing the spacecraft into orbit. That meant SpaceX could not install landing legs on the Falcon 9’s first stage or attempt recovery of the booster.

SpaceX lands, refurbishes and re-flies Falcon 9 first stages to reduce costs, and it is the only launch company that currently reuses rocket hardware.

The launch of the GPS 3 SV03 mission Tuesday is the first flight with a high-priority national security satellite that will reserve propellant for landing of the rocket. SpaceX has recovered rockets on previous launches with military payloads, such as a Falcon Heavy mission last June, but those missions carried experimental technology demonstration and research satellites — not operational spacecraft like a GPS satellite.

On SpaceX’s first GPS launch in 2018, the military required the Falcon 9 rocket to place the spacecraft into an orbit with a higher perigee, or low point, of more than 740 miles, or about 1,200 kilometers. Teams also loaded extra fuel into the GPS spacecraft as an extra precaution.

It was the first high-priority national security payload to launch on a SpaceX rocket, and it was also the first satellite in a new design of GPS spacecraft.

“Simply put, there was insufficient performance given the mission trajectory and payload weight, combined with the uncertainties associated with this demanding mission,” Lauderdale said.

“Our evaluation of that mission’s performance, combined with additional work with SpaceX, reduced uncertainty in many areas,” Lauderdale said. “When we approached SpaceX to revise some spacecraft requirements for this mission … they responded with an opportunity to recover the booster in exchange for adding these requirements, as well as other considerations.”

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is prepared for rollout to Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad. Credit: SpaceX

Officials are now more comfortable with the performance of the Falcon 9 rocket and the new GPS 3-series satellite design. That allowed engineers to load less propellant into the third GPS 3 satellite.

Mission planners also changed the perigee of the spacecraft’s initial orbit after launch from around 740 miles to 250 miles, according to Col. Edward Byrne, senior materiel leader at SMC’s Medium Earth Orbit space systems division.

“All that required from us was to reassess our burn profile, so we made some slight modifications to that burn profile, but there’s been no mission impact associated with the booster recovery option,” Byrne said in a pre-launch conference call with reporters.

One change to the Falcon 9 rocket requested by the Space Force for the GPS SV03 mission is a gray band of thermal insulation on the launcher’s upper stage. The thermal layer will help maintain kerosene fuel at proper temperatures during a nearly one-hour coast phase between the first and second burns of the upper stage’s Merlin engine.

SpaceX has tested the thermal layer before, but it did not fly on the first GPS 3 launch in 2018. The company has experimented with long-duration coasts of the Falcon upper stage to gather data before the first dedicated launch of a national security payload on SpaceX’s triple-core Falcon Heavy rocket late this year.

Military engineers charged with overseeing the design and production of SpaceX rockets for national security missions assessed numerous configuration changes since the Falcon 9’s first launch of a GPS satellite in 2018.

“Since the GPS 3 launch in December 2018, we’ve worked with SpaceX to stay current on the configuration of the Falcon 9, evaluating 665 changes,” Lauderdale said. “This enabled us to maintain the vehicle technical baseline that is the foundation of our independent mission assurance.”

The military has contracted with SpaceX to launch the fourth, fifth and sixth GPS 3 satellites. Assuming the launch of GPS SV03 goes according to plan, the SV04 mission could launch from Cape Canaveral on a Falcon 9 rocket as soon as Sept. 30, according to the Space and Missile Systems Center.

The GPS SV05 spacecraft is scheduled for launch on a Falcon 9 rocket in January.

Space Force officials have not yet approved SpaceX to launch critical national security satellites using previously-flown boosters. SpaceX has re-launched Falcon boosters 37 times to date with a 100 percent success record.

Lauderdale said the SMC mission assurance team is becoming more familiar with how SpaceX refurbishes rockets in between flights.

“I can’t commit to when we’ll be ready,” he said Friday, referring to when the military could launch a national security payload on a reused Falcon 9 booster.

SpaceX is building an all-new Falcon Heavy rocket for a national security launch late this year, and the company is expected to use a brand new booster for the next GPS launch no earlier than Sept. 30.

The military is currently considering proposals from four companies — SpaceX, ULA, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman — in the next round of launch service procurements. Lauderdale said the military will allow launch service providers who win the the so-called “Phase 2” contracts to bid reused rockets for national security space launches in an effort to reduce costs.

“As a program, we are open and ready and looking forward to whatever industry wants to make available to us, but predominately we’ve been looking at the Phase 2 competition as that opportunity,” Lauderdale said.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stands vertical on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station before launch of the GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft awaiting launch Tuesday will use its on-board propulsion system to circularize its orbit after separation from the Falcon 9 rocket. It’s expected to enter service later this year.

Both of the previous GPS 3-series satellites are healthy, according to the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. They were “set healthy” and officially entered the operational GPS constellation Jan. 13 and April 1, an SMC spokesperson said.

The launch of the GPS 3 SV03 spacecraft is timed to inject the satellite into Plane E, Slot 4 of the GPS constellation. That position is currently occupied by a GPS satellite launched May 10, 2000, from Cape Canaveral on a Delta 2 rocket. Military officials did not say whether that satellite, which was originally designed for a 10-year mission, will be decommissioned or moved to another slot in the GPS network.

The GPS satellites are spread among six orbital planes, each with four primary spacecraft, plus spares. Byrne said Friday the GPS constellation currently consists of 31 satellites.

The GPS network provides positioning and timing services worldwide for military and civilian users, beaming signals relied upon by airliners, ATMs, drivers and smart bombs, among numerous other users.

“The Global Positioning System has become part of our critical national infrastructure, from transportation to financial markets to energy grids to the rideshare industry,” said Tonya Ladwig, acting vice president of Lockheed Martin’s navigation systems division. “It’s no longer a matter of did you use GPS today. It’s a matter of how many times did you actually use it.”

The GPS 3 satellites provide more accurate navigation signals and boasting longer design lifetimes of 15 years. The new GPS 3 satellites also broadcast e a new L1C civilian signal that is compatible with Europe’s Galileo network and Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System.

Other space-based navigation networks operated by Japan and China are also adopting similar compatible signals.

Like the previous line of Boeing-built GPS 2F satellites, all GPS 3-series spacecraft broadcast a dedicated L5 signal geared to support air navigation. The GPS 3 satellites also continue beaming an encrypted military-grade navigation signal known as M-code.

The M-code signal allows GPS satellites to broadcast higher-power, jam-resistant signals over specific regions, such as a military theater or battlefield. The capability provides U.S. and allied forces with more reliable navigation services, and could also allow the military to intentionally disrupt or jam civilian-grade GPS signals in a particular region, while the M-code signal remains unimpeded.

L3Harris Technologies builds the navigation payloads for the GPS 3 satellites.

Ladwig said the GPS 3 SV04 and SV05 spacecraft are complete and in storage awaiting launch, and the next three satellites are fully assembled and undergoing environmental testing. SV09 and SV10 are currently being assembled at Lockheed Martin’s GPS satellite factory near Denver.

Lockheed Martin is on contract with the Defense Department to build 10 GPS 3 satellites — two of which have launched — and up to 22 upgraded GPS 3F-series satellites.

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Live coverage: SpaceX launch on schedule for Friday afternoon

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission will launch SpaceX’s tenth batch of Starlink broadband satellites. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket test-fired its engines at 6:30 p.m. EDT (2230 GMT) Wednesday. Credit: Spaceflight Now

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Timeline for Falcon 9 launch with Starlink satellites

Follow the key events of the Falcon 9 rocket’s ascent to orbit with 60 satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket is scheduled to lift off Wednesday at 9:25 p.m. EDT (0125 GMT Thursday) from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The Falcon 9 will head northeast from Cape Canaveral over the Atlantic Ocean to place the 60 Starlink satellites into an elliptical orbit ranging between 132 miles (213 kilometers) to 226 miles (365 kilometers) above Earth with an inclination of 53 degrees to the equator. The satellites will use their ion thrusters to maneuver into their higher orbit for testing, before finally proceeding to an operational orbit at an altitude of approximately 341 miles (550 kilometers).

The Falcon 9’s first stage will target a landing on SpaceX’s drone ship “Just Read the Instructions” in the Atlantic Ocean nearly 400 miles (630 kilometers) northeast of Cape Canaveral.

The first stage booster launching Wednesday previously flew on four missions, landing on a SpaceX drone ship after each mission. The booster first flew from Cape Canaveral in September 2018 with a Telesat communications satellite, then launched again from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in January 2019 with 10 Iridium voice and data relay payloads.

Its third flight occurred in May 2019 on the first dedicated Falcon 9 launch for the Starlink program. Most recently, the booster launched Jan. 6 from Cape Canaveral and again landed on a SpaceX drone ship offshore.

If the booster lands after Wednesday night’s launch, it will mark the first time SpaceX has recovered a Falcon 9 first stage for a fifth time.

For Wednesday’s mission, SpaceX will attempt to catch both halves of the Falcon 9’s payload fairing using nets aboard the ocean-going ships “Ms. Tree” and “Ms. Chief” in the Atlantic Ocean. The attempt to catch the fairing will come around 45 minutes after liftoff.

Data source: SpaceX

T-0:00:00: Liftoff

After the rocket’s nine Merlin engines pass an automated health check, hold-down clamps will release the Falcon 9 booster for liftoff from pad 40.

T+0:01:12: Max Q

The Falcon 9 rocket reaches Max Q, the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure, a few seconds after surpassing the speed of sound.

T+0:02:32: MECO

The Falcon 9’s nine Merlin 1D engines shut down.
The Falcon 9’s nine Merlin 1D engines shut down.

T+0:02:36: Stage 1 Separation

The Falcon 9’s first stage separates from the second stage moments after MECO.
The Falcon 9’s first stage separates from the second stage moments after MECO.

T+0:02:43: Stage 2 Ignition

The second stage Merlin 1D vacuum engine ignites for an approximately 6-minute burn to inject the Jason 3 satellite into a parking orbit.
The second stage Merlin 1D vacuum engine ignites for an approximately six-minute burn to inject the Starlink satellites into orbit.

T+0:03:11: Fairing Jettison

The 5.2-meter (17.1-foot) diameter payload fairing jettisons once the Falcon 9 rocket ascends through the dense lower atmosphere. The 43-foot-tall fairing is made of two clamshell-like halves composed of carbon fiber with an aluminum honeycomb core.
The 5.2-meter (17.1-foot) diameter payload fairing jettisons once the Falcon 9 rocket ascends through the dense lower atmosphere. The 43-foot-tall fairing is made of two clamshell-like halves composed of carbon fiber with an aluminum honeycomb core.

T+0:07:04: Stage 1 Entry Burn Complete

A subset of the first stage’s Merlin 1D engines completes an entry burn to slow down for landing. A final landing burn will occur just before touchdown on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” nearly 400 miles (630 kilometers) northeast of Cape Canaveral.

T+0:08:42: Stage 1 Landing

The Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage booster touches down on SpaceX’s drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

T+0:08:58: SECO 1

The Merlin 1D vacuum engine turns off after placing the Starlink satellites in an elliptical orbit ranging between 132 miles (213 kilometers) and 226 miles (365 kilometers) above Earth, with an inclination of 53 degrees.

T+0:14:54: Starlink Deployment

The 60 flat-panel Starlink satellites, each with a mass of about 573 pounds (260 kilograms) deploy from the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage.

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SpaceX’s reusable Falcon booster returns to port after crew launch

Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

Almost exactly three days after taking off a few miles to the north at the Kennedy Space Center on SpaceX’s historic first crew launch, a 15-story-tall Falcon rocket booster returned to Florida’s Space Coast Tuesday aboard a football field-sized drone ship.

Throngs of local residents, tourists and space enthusiasts turned out at Jetty Park and Port Canaveral to see the booster as it returned from sea.

A tug pulled the drone ship through the inlet leading to Port Canaveral around 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) Tuesday, and mariners carefully maneuvered the drone ship into position for a crane to hoist the Falcon 9 rocket booster off the vessel and into an onshore stand. SpaceX planned to remove or retract the rocket’s landing legs, then rotate the booster horizontal for transport back to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for further inspections, and likely refurbishment for another launch.

The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 3:22 p.m. EDT (1922 GMT) Saturday from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on a test flight to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.

It was the first time astronauts have launched from U.S. soil into Earth orbit since the last space shuttle launch July 8, 2011.

The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket switched off its nine Merlin engines around two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, then detached to allow the rocket’s upper stage to fire into orbit with the Crew Dragon capsule.

The first stage deployed four grid fins for aerodynamic stability, then reignited a subset of its Merlin engines to steer toward a landing on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” a few hundred miles northeast of Cape Canaveral.

A single-engine burn slowed the rocket for the final descent to the drone ship’s deck, and four black landing legs made of carbon fiber extended just before touchdown.

The first stage on the Crew Dragon Demo-2 launch was flying for the first time. The commercial booster sports U.S. flags and NASA logos, both the agency’s iconic blue “meatball” insignia and the newly-revived stylized “worm” typeface.

Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
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Dragon crew names their spacecraft Endeavour; complete first manual flight test

EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated at 7:30 a.m. EDT (1130 GMT) on May 31 with downlink video.

Credit: NASA TV / Spaceflight Now

Hours after arriving in orbit, Dragon astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken completed their first manual flight test using touchscreen controls on the SpaceX’s new crew capsule, and revealed “Endeavour” as the name of their ship.

The astronauts entered Earth orbit around nine minutes after lifting off on top of a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center at 3:22 p.m. EDT (1922 GMT) Saturday, marking the first human spaceflight to originate from the Florida spaceport since the final space shuttle mission in July 2011.

The crew quickly got to work accomplishing key objectives of the Crew Dragon spacecraft’s first piloted test flight. They took off their SpaceX-made pressure suits and changed into more comfortable clothing, then Hurley began testing his ability to provide manual inputs to the capsule’s flight control system, which is normally designed to autonomously control the spacecraft’s movements.

Using touchscreen controls, Hurley prepared commands that would have changed the Crew Dragon spacecraft’s attitude, or orientation, in space. He stopped short of actually sending the commands to the Dragon flight computer.

“You’re more of a monitor of all the systems, and you’re not using all your brainpower to actually fly the vehicle,” Hurley said before launch. “That being said, the vehicle has manual capability in several phases, and we will certainly test that out because it’s just prudent to have an automated vehicle that has a backup capability manually in order to do what you need to do to complete the mission.

“Hopefully, it will make our job easier,” Hurley said. “It’s similar to what our Russian counterparts fly. The Soyuz is a mostly automated vehicle, but it does have manual backup capability as well, and it’s the way vehicles are being developed for the future. I think it’s the right way to fly vehicles in space, so hopefully that’ll be the answer that we come back with.”

Hurley, assisted by co-pilot Behnken, will perform a second manual flight test in close proximity with the space station less than an hour before its scheduled docking Sunday.

The touchscreen displays use similar technology as cars made by Tesla. SpaceX and Tesla were both founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Hurley and Behnken were involved in some of SpaceX’s design decisions involving the Crew Dragon spacecraft, acting as consultants. Hurley is a veteran Marine Corps test pilot, and Behnken was an Air Force flight test engineer before his selection as an astronaut.

“Ultimately they decided on a touchscreen interface,” Hurley said. “Of course, growing up as a pilot my whole career, having a certain way to control the vehicle, this is certainly different. But we went into it with a very open mind, I think, and worked with them to kind of refine the way that you interface with a touchscreen and the way that your touch is actually registered on the displays in order to be able to fly it cleanly and not make mistakes touching it, and potentially putting in a wrong input, those kinds of things.”

The SpaceX flight suits, which the astronauts wear during launch, docking, undocking and re-entry, have gloves specially designed to function with the touchscreens.

“I think it was challenging for us, and for them at first, to work through all those different design issues, but we got to a point where the vehicle, from a manual flying standpoint, with a touchscreen, it flies very well” Hurley said. “You kind of interface with the vehicle such that the cameras are displayed on that same display, so you’re seeing the docking target, for example, when you’re maneuvering close to space station right in the same exact place you’re looking to fly the vehicle.

“The difference is you’ve got to be very deliberate when you’re putting an input in with the touchscreen relative to what you would do with a stick because … when you’re flying an airplane, for example, if I push the stick forward, it’s going to go down. I have to actually make a concerted effort to do that with at touchscreen, if that makes sense. So it’s a little bit different way of doing it, but the design in general has worked out very well.”

The space shuttle’s cockpit had numerous switches controlling a boggling number of systems, computers, pumps, circuits, heaters, valves, rockets and other components. There were also gauges and indicators telling astronauts the status of key spacecraft systems.

And the shuttle commander and pilot had control sticks to manually guide the spacecraft on landing. The astronauts could even take manual control during launch or re-entry in the event of a guidance failure.

Hurley was pilot on two space shuttle missions, including the last shuttle flight in 2011.

The Crew Dragon is designed to by fully autonomous, but there are a few opportunities for the astronauts to manually override the autopilot. The crew can dock the capsule with the space station, and there are physical buttons to de-orbit the spacecraft, control the ship’s fire suppression system, and deploy parachutes at the end of the mission. All those buttons would only be used if the automatic systems run into trouble.

A view of the few buttons on the Crew Dragon control panel. Many of the push buttons would be used during in-flight emergencies. Credit: SpaceX

In response to a question from Spaceflight Now, Behnken said the Crew Dragon’s touchscreen flying interface — often compared to a video game or a smartphone — was specifically developed for manual flying in the vicinity of the space station.

“When we evaluated the touchscreen interface, we really did focus on the task at hand, and trying to get a good performance for that specific task,” Behnken said. “I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that the right answer for all flying is to not switch to a touchscreen necessarily, but for the task that we have, and the capability to kind of keep ourselves safe flying close to the International Space Station, the touchscreen is going to provide that capability just fine.

“It just might not the same thing you’d want to use if you were suited up and trying to fly an entry or an ascent, for example, like we were trying to do with the space shuttle.”

Hurley and Behnken announced after Saturday’s launch they have named their crew capsule “Endeavour” after the retired NASA space shuttle. The spacecraft is the third crew vehicle in the U.S. space program to be named Endeavour, after the Apollo 15 command module and shuttle orbiter.

“Without further ado, we would like to welcome you aboard capsule Endeavour,” Hurley said. “We chose Endeavour for a few reasons — one because of this incredible endeavor NASA, SpaceX and the United States have been on since the end of the shuttle program back in 2011.

“The other reason we named it Endeavour is a little more personal to Bob and I,” Hurley continued. “We both had our first flights on shuttle Endeavour, and it just meant so much for us to carry on that name.”

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NASA astronauts launch from U.S. soil for first time in nine years

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft take off from the Kennedy Space Center on the first orbital spaceflight from U.S. soil since 2011. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now

Two veteran NASA astronauts rocketed away from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday to begin a test flight of a new commercial spaceship designed, built and owned by SpaceX.

The long-awaited return of human spaceflight to the Florida spaceport marked just the fifth time in U.S. history that astronauts flew into orbit on a new type of spacecraft, and the first time since the inaugural space shuttle launch in 1981.

With spacecraft commander Doug Hurley in the left seat and veteran astronaut Bob Behnken to his right, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft lifted off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 3:22:45 p.m. EDT (1922:45 GMT) Saturday.

Nine minutes later, the astronauts were in orbit, ending a nearly decade-long gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability that forced NASA to pay the Russian space agency for rides to the space station on Soyuz spaceships.

A previous launch attempt Wednesday was canceled due to the threat of lightning, and stormy weather again threatened Saturday’s countdown.

But a wave of showers and thunderstorms pushed through the spaceport and skies cleared sufficiently to allow the 215-foot-tall (65-meter) Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule to take off at Saturday’s instantaneous launch opportunity, a one-second window determined by the location of the space station’s orbital track.

Hurley and Behnken put on their white SpaceX-made pressure suits at NASA’s crew quarters Saturday, then rode a Tesla Model X car to pad 39A a few miles away. Once the astronauts arrived at the historic seaside launch complex — the departure point for all of NASA’s Apollo moon landing missions, and the first and last space shuttle flights — they rode an elevator up the tower and walked across a 50-foot (15-meter) access warm to board the Crew Dragon capsule.

A half-dozen SpaceX engineers wearing dark jumpsuits and masks helped Hurley and Behnken into their seats, then closed the Dragon’s hatch and evacuated the launch pad before the Falcon 9 was fueled for liftoff.

Nine Merlin 1D main engines powered the Falcon 9 northeast from the Kennedy Space Center with 1.7 million pounds of thrust, then a single Merlin upper stage engine tuned to fire in the vacuum of space propelled the Crew Dragon spacecraft into orbit.

Soon after the upper stage engine shut down, the Crew Dragon separated from the Falcon 9. Cameras mounted outside the rocket and inside the Dragon spacecraft beamed down live views throughout the climb into orbit, including video from inside the cockpit.

The spectacular imagery showed Hurley and Behnken in their flight suits as they soared into space. At eye-level, a three-panel touchscreen graphic display let the astronauts know where they were during ascent.

Thousands of spectators lined roadways in nearby communities to watch the launch. The crowds allowed on NASA property were significantly smaller, with limitations on the number of media representatives and VIPs present to see the historic crew launch.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence attended the launch, and Trump gave remarks inside NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building later Saturday.

The successful launch Saturday was a milestone for NASA, with the restoration of crew access to low Earth orbit from U.S. soil. The nine-year gap since the last shuttle mission in 2011 was the longest span of time since the first U.S. human spaceflight in 1961 that NASA did not have a way to send crews into space on domestic rockets.

Hurley, a retired Marine Corps colonel who hails from Upstate New York, is the spacecraft commander on the Crew Dragon test flight, designated Demo-2, or DM-2. His responsibilities include launch, landing and recovery operations.

Behnken is the joint operations commander for the Demo-2 test flight. The 49-year-old Missouri native will be responsible for activities once aboard the International Space Station.

“Enjoy your new spaceship,” radioed Jason Aranha, a spacecraft communicator at SpaceX’s mission control in Hawthorne, California.

“We are definitely doing that,” replied Hurley a couple of hours after launch. “It’s been a spectacular spaceship so far. Congrats to the Dragon teams, and obviously everybody there in Hawthorne that’s done all this work to get us up here.

“It was quite a ride,” Hurley said. “Everybody go home and kind of remember this moment. It’s been pretty incredible.”

Hurley later completed a manual flight test to demonstrate the crew’s ability to command manual inputs to the Crew Dragon’s flight control system. The spacecraft is designed to operate autonomously, and is scheduled to use the autopilot mode for docking with the space station at 10:29 a.m. EDT (1429 GMT) Sunday.

The astronauts also downlinked live video from inside the spacecraft before beginning an eight-hour sleep.

Hurley and Behnken announced they are naming the capsule “Endeavour” after the retired NASA space shuttle. The spacecraft is the third crew vehicle in the U.S. space program to be named Endeavour, after the Apollo 15 command module and shuttle orbiter.

“Without further ado, we would like to welcome you aboard capsule Endeavour,” Hurley said. “We chose Endeavour for a few reasons — one because of this incredible endeavor NASA, SpaceX and the United States have been on since the end of the shuttle program back in 2011.

“The other reason we named it Endeavour is a little more personal to Bob and I,” Hurley continued. “We both had our first flights on shuttle Endeavour, and it just meant so much for us to carry on that name.”

But this Endeavour is different than the past space vehicles that carried the name. Instead of being a government-owned spaceship, the Crew Dragon is owned by SpaceX. And it’s controlled by SpaceX engineers in Southern California, not by NASA controllers and contractors in Houston.

The change is a significant step toward the commercialization of spaceflight, a strategic objective of NASA, which says the change will bring about lower costs and more innovation in the space transportation industry.

NASA is looking to incorporate commercial elements in its architecture to return humans to the lunar surface. The agency last month announced SpaceX and two other companies won contracts to advance development of human-rated lunar lander vehicles.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk celebrates after Saturday’s launch. Credit: Walter Scriptinas II / Spaceflight Now

The launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft Saturday was a turning point for SpaceX, the once-upstart space company founded in 2002 by billionaire Elon Musk. It comes after years of development, including delays caused by funding shortfalls in congressional budgets and technical setbacks, including a pair of issues in the last year involving the crew capsule’s launch abort system and parachutes.

Musk said he was “quite overcome with emotion” after the Dragon launch Saturday.

“It’s been 18 years working toward this goal, so it’s hard to believe that it’s happening,” Musk said. “We haven’t quite yet docked safely with the space station, and of course, we need to bring them back safely, and we need to repeat these missions and have this be a regular occurrence. So there’s a lot of work to do.”

Nevertheless, Musk and NASA officials were in celebratory mood after Saturday’s launch.

“It’s been nine years since we’ve launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil, and now we have done it again,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

The Demo-2 astronauts will live and work on the International Space Station for one-to-four months before coming back to Earth for a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean just east of Cape Canaveral. The final duration of their test flight will be primarily determined by the performance of the capsule’s solar arrays in orbit, mission managers said earlier this month.

Hurley and Behnken were two of four NASA astronauts selected in 2015 to train for commercial crew missions on SpaceX and Boeing capsules. NASA assigned the two-man crew to the SpaceX Demo-2 mission in 2018.

NASA has signed a series of funding agreements with SpaceX since 2011 valued at more than $3.1 billion. With NASA funding and technical oversight, SpaceX has developed the human-rated Crew Dragon spacecraft to launch on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket.

Boeing has received a similar series of contracts from NASA — valued at more than $4.8 billion — to develop the Starliner crew capsule.

But those figures include NASA payments to the contractors to cover crew transportation services, once the Crew Dragon and Starliner vehicles are operational. Phil McAlister, NASA’s head of commercial spaceflight development, said May 13 that the space agency invested around $5 billion toward Crew Dragon and Starliner design and development.

The companies also put in an unspecified level of private funding, a requirement under the public-private partnership arrangement pursued by NASA’s commercial crew program since 2010.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley (right) suit up for Saturday’s launch at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

With Saturday’s launch, SpaceX became the first private company to put people into orbit. The achievement follows SpaceX’s earlier milestones, such becoming the first private company to deliver cargo to the space station in 2012.

SpaceX has also carved out a leading place in the global commercial launch industry, and is a trusted contractor to launch satellites for the U.S. military.

But SpaceX’s long-term vision — as laid out by Musk — is interplanetary space travel. And launching people into space is a core mission for the company.

NASA and SpaceX received numerous congratulatory messages, including from Sergei Krikalev, a veteran cosmonaut who now needs human spaceflight programs at the Russian space agency.

NASA has paid the Russian government approximately $3.9 billion since 2006 to purchase Soyuz seats for astronauts from the United States and the station’s other international partners, according to a report last year by NASA’s inspector general.

Most recently, NASA agreed to pay the Russian government $90.2 million for a single Soyuz seat on a launch this October. The U.S. space agency decided to sign the agreement to guarantee access to the space station for a NASA crew member in the event of additional delays in the new U.S. crew capsules.

Assuming Hurley and Behnken’s test flight goes according to plan, the first operational Crew Dragon launch is scheduled from the Kennedy Space Center no earlier than Aug. 30 with a four-person space station crew.

Boeing’s Starliner spaceship — facing delays after a problem-plagued unpiloted test flight last December — will have to perform a second automated demonstration mission before it is cleared to fly astronauts. The Starliner’s crewed test flight to the space station is now expected in the first half of 2021.

A report by the NASA inspector general last year concluded the space agency is paying roughly $55 million per round-trip seat on Crew Dragon missions, and $90 million for a Starliner ticket to the space station. Both capsules will typically carry four astronauts on missions to the International Space Stations.

NASA expects to end payments to Russia once the new U.S. crew ships are operational. Under the space agencies’ current plans, U.S. astronauts will continue flying on Soyuz spacecraft and Russian cosmonauts will launch and land on the new U.S. vehicles under a barter arrangement, with no funds exchanged.

But Russian officials say they are not assigning cosmonauts to missions on U.S. vehicles until they are flight-proven.

Russia’s partnership with NASA on the International Space Station program on a technical level has been an unqualified success. Without Russian spacecraft, U.S. astronauts could have not flown to and from the station in the wake of the space shuttle Columbia accident in 2003, or since the shuttle’s retirement in 2011.

But the political relationship has been tortured at times.

One low point came in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. That prompted the Obama administration to levy U.S. sanctions on Russian government entities, and some individuals, including then-Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is now the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

In response to the sanctions, Rogozin suggested on Twitter in 2014 that the United States “deliver its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline.”

“The trampoline is working,” Musk joked Saturday.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Photos: Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon await next launch attempt

These photos show the 215-foot-tall (65-meter) Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft on pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, ready for launch on a test flight to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken when weather cooperates.

The first launch attempt for the Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 mission Wednesday, May 27, was scrubbed due to the threat of lightning in the atmosphere over the Kennedy Space Center. These photos were taken Friday, May 29, as the rocket awaited its next launch opportunity.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will launch on the first mission from Florida’s Space Coast with astronauts on-board since the final space shuttle lifted off July 8, 2011.

The commercial crew capsule on top of the rocket is designed to carry four people to the International Space Station under contract to NASA. The test flight by Hurley and Behnken — slated to last one-to-four months — is the final shakedown cruise for the SpaceX crew capsule before regular operational missions can commence.

The Crew Dragon capsule measures around 26.7 feet (8.1 meters) tall and 13 feet (4 meters) in diameter, according to SpaceX.

See our Mission Status Center for live coverage of the Demo-2 test flight.

Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft stand on pad 39A Friday. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.