Cape Canaveral: SpaceX celebrated the successful launch on 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 in July, although that date could be delayed.
The new capsule blasted off aboard the Falcon 9 rocket built by SpaceX – run by billionaire Elon Musk — at 2:49 am (0749 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, lighting up the coastline.
The first and second stages separated without incident, placing Dragon in Earth’s orbit 11 minutes after take-off. Every successful stage of the mission – whose planning suffered three-year delays – triggered cheers at the firm's headquarters and at the Kennedy Space Center.
“I’m a little emotionally exhausted, because that was super stressful but it worked, so far,” Musk told a late-night press conference an hour later.
“It’s been 17 years, we still haven't launched anyone yet, but hopefully we will later this year.” The next tricky step for the capsule will be docking at the ISS on Sunday at around 1100 GMT, with a return to Earth scheduled for next Friday.
Ripley – nicknamed in honor of the character played by Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” movies – is fitted with monitors to test the forces that future astronauts will be subjected to on takeoff and when they return to the Earth's atmosphere and then land in the Atlantic, braked by giant parachutes.