A SpaceX mission roared into the heavens as President Trump looked on Saturday, marking the first time a commercial space company has sent American astronauts into orbit.
Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence watched from a rooftop two miles away as the Falcon 9 rocket launched the Crew Dragon capsule from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to ferry astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station. The trip should take about 19 hours.
The first manned mission from U.S. soil in nine years offered a dazzling, the-future-is-here moment amid a deadly coronavirus pandemic that’s upended normal life.
It also represented a new era of space travel, as NASA partners with commercial space explorers and Mr. Trump eyes ambitious plans to send humans back to Moon and then Mars. The launch may also set the table for private space tourism for people with the means.
The astronauts gave a thumbs up before the successful liftoff and Mr. Trump applauded from his viewing position.
“With this launch, the decades of lost years and little action are officially over,” Mr. Trump said at a post-launch pep rally. “A new age of American ambition has now begun.”He said the spacecraft had reached low-Earth orbit safely.
Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, monitored the mission from the company’s launch control center and celebrated with NASA employees, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence afterward.
Saturday’s launch was the second try, after poor weather scrubbed Wednesday’s attempt. Mr. Trump traveled to Florida for both.
Vice President Mike Pence said the rocket launch could help the U.S. find the “unity of purpose” the Apollo missions provided in the 1960s, as protests rock U.S. cities after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“In America, every life matters and there’s no tolerance for racism or violence in the streets,” Mr. Pence said. “We will honor the life of George Floyd. We will have law and order in our streets and we will heal our land. And we will prove again that even in the most challenging times, Americans rise above. We always move forward.”
NASA hasn’t sent astronauts into space from U.S. territory since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. It’s been forced to rely on Russian launches to get to the space station since then, but the use of Mr. Musk’s venture marked a pivot to the U.S. private sector.
“I would say [Wednesday’s event] is extremely important for the United States because it marks the first time that we’re going to have commercial launch systems and we’re also going to have a diversity of launch systems,” said Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida who worked at NASA for three decades.
Relying on a single, government-run system has its pitfalls. For instance, the shuttle program was grounded at the start of the 1990s due to hydrogen leaks.
Saturday’s launch ends another frustrating gap in U.S. space exploration, due in part to lackluster funding from Congress, according to Mr. Metzger.
“I was not supposed to be a nine-year gap. Now we are finally ending the gap,” he said.
Having a diversity of programs will be critical to meeting America’s ambitions in space, from lunar mining to space tourism, he added, foreseeing a scenario in which people are able to buy tickets to the moon within two decades.
Mr. Trump said moving forward, NASA will leverage private-sector ingenuity and rebuild the country’s stature in the great beyond.
“You can’t be number one on Earth if you are number two in space,” Mr. Trump said. “We are not going to be number two anywhere.”
Earlier this week, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Mr. Musk’s company showed the ability to adapt quickly after test accidents on the ground.
“SpaceX can do things that NASA historically has not done,” he said. “They test, they fail, they fix, they fly, until the point where we are today, where not only is SpaceX comfortable, but NASA is comfortable.”
He relished the success of the mission three days later. “Go NASA. Go SpaceX. Go America,” Mr. Bridenstine told cheering employees at his agency.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who is poised to take on Mr. Trump in November, took partial credit for the launch Saturday, saying the Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus effort bolstered the aerospace sector in Florida.
“I congratulate NASA, SpaceX, and all the hardworking women and men who made today a victory for American innovation and persistence,” Mr. Biden said. “This mission represents the culmination of work begun years ago, and which President Obama and I fought hard to ensure would become a reality.”