SpaceX Aces Historic Launch Of The Crew Dragon Astronaut Pod

SpaceX has just made history with what was perhaps one of the most pivotal rocket launches in U.S. space travel. In the early hours of Saturday morning, the private rocket company fired up its Falcon 9 workhorse to launch its new-generation astronaut pod into orbit, NASA proudly announced in a news release.

Famously known as the Crew Dragon, this is the first commercial-built spacecraft designed to shuttle astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). At the same time, SpaceX's Crew Dragon is the first U.S.-built pod intended for human travel to launch from American soil since NASA retired its Space Shuttle Program in 2011.

As The Inquisitr previously reported, today's launch served as the first test-flight of the Crew Dragon capsule. Dubbed the Demo-1 mission, or DM-1, the launch sent the astronaut pod on its inaugural spaceflight in order to demonstrate the capabilities of its systems. Since this was the first-ever test of the Crew Dragon, the capsule soared to the skies unmanned in a bid to test out its endurance and safety protocols before being boarded by astronauts for its second spaceflight, Demo-2.

The spacecraft and its rocket carrier blasted off from the historic Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the same launch pad that saw NASA's space shuttles take off to the ISS and the mighty Saturn V rocket ferry astronauts to the moon during the Apollo missions.

Packed with its precious cargo, the Falcon 9 lifted off at 2:49 a.m. EST amid the cheers of a sizeable crowd gathered to watch the Crew Dragon take off on its maiden voyage. The SpaceX rocket and capsule blasted off into space in a ball of fire and smoke, taking to the skies with a brilliant flash of light.

As expected, the experienced SpaceX stuck the landing, with the Falcon 9 booster flawlessly touching down on the company's "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship, which was stationed in the Atlantic Ocean. After today, the private space company now boasts 53 successful landings of its rocket boosters.

"Crew Dragon will carry out a series of phasing maneuvers as it pursues the space station during approach," stated NASA officials.

The spacecraft is slated to remain at the ISS for a period of five days and will head back home in the early hours of Friday morning, undocking with the space station at approximately 2:30 a.m. EST. After a six-hour spaceflight, the Crew Dragon will parachute down to Earth, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean sometime around 8:45 a.m. EST.

While the capsule was, in fact, unmanned, the Crew Dragon didn't fly its first mission alone. The astronaut pod was occupied by an "anthropomorphic test dummy" (ATD) called Ripley and his trusted companion, a plushie Earth-shaped ball described by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk as a "super high tech zero-g indicator."

While Ripley was busy gathering data for the safety of future astronauts bound to ride the Dragon into space, his companion did a bang-up job at demonstrating zero gravity. A short post-launch clip shared to Twitter by Elon Musk showed the plushie gracefully floating inside the Crew Dragon capsule.

Photos from the launch posted by NASA on its Flickr account showed Behnken and Hurley passionately watching the launch of DM-1. The astronauts were later photographed having a friendly chat with Musk, the Crew Dragon chief designer, after the blast-off.

The two astronauts are slated to fly the Dragon to the ISS during the capsule's first manned test flight, Demo-2 or DM-2, which is currently targeted for July. By doing so, Behnken and Hurley will become the first American astronauts to launch into space from U.S. soil since 2011.

According to NASA officials, today's launch "marks a significant step toward returning to the nation the capability to launch astronauts on a U.S.-built spacecraft from U.S. soil." In the past eight years, the space agency has had to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to taxi its astronauts to work on board the ISS.

"What today really represents is a new era in spaceflight," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said after the launch. "We're looking forward to being one of many customers in a robust commercial marketplace in low-Earth orbit."

Earlier today, Bridenstine took to Twitter to congratulate the SpaceX and NASA teams for the success of this first-of-its-kind mission.

"We're only partway through the mission, but the system thus far has passed an exhaustive set of reviews, and the launch itself. The launch went as expected and, so far, everything is nominal."