KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (CN) — The ground rumbled in Titusville as Crew Dragon blasted off from Launchpad 39A on Cape Canaveral Saturday afternoon in the U.S. commercial space program’s first manned mission to the International Space Station.
Thousands of spectators gathered along US Highway 1 in Brevard County to see SpaceX’s historic launch from the Kennedy Space Center. In some spots, crowds stood shoulder to shoulder in the humid Florida air, squeezing in for a waterfront view of the launch.
SpaceX and NASA are characterizing the mission dubbed Demo-2 as a pivotal test of SpaceX’s crew transportation system.
“The Demo-2 mission will be the final major step before NASA’s Commercial Crew Program certifies Crew Dragon for operational, long-duration missions to the space station,” NASA said in its mission summary.
Astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley are set to dock with the International Space Station — which is orbiting Earth at approximately 17,000 mph — within a day of liftoff.
NASA officials hope the SpaceX launch along with planned Boeing space flights will mark the start of a new golden era of space travel that will capture the fascination of the American public as did the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s.
“Our grandparents and parents had Apollo and the Space Shuttle to look at. We now have NASA working with commercial partners like SpaceX and Boeing. This program is going to take us back to the moon,” NASA spokeswoman Shaneequa Vereen said. “And what we learn there, we are going to use to put men and women on Mars. I think this will reinvigorate Americans’ interest in the space program.”
Unfavorable weather had put the SpaceX launch in limbo all week. Afternoon thunderstorms prompted SpaceX to scrap a planned Wednesday launch and heavy rain threatened to postpone the mission again Saturday.
The rain cleared out by the 3:22 pm launch time, and the spectacle transpired as planned.
Though North Florida is still in the infancy of reopening businesses in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown, most spectators in the downtown Titusville area did not wear masks or protective gear.
The Brevard County Sheriff’s Office was on hand to control the movement of crowds and traffic, but enforcement of social distancing was not a priority. Officials with the sheriff’s department said that it had thousands of masks to hand out to spectators this week.
NASA kept prime public viewing areas closed at Kennedy Space Center Saturday on account of the coronavirus outbreak. Vantage points along the intracoastal waterway remained open, including A. Max Brewer Bridge, which was packed to the brim with onlookers.
Tampa resident Deric Goodman, who was in Titusville for the launch, said he was trying to keep his distance from others, but that he generally felt safe in the city’s public spaces.
“I’m not too worried. From what I’ve seen over the last month, I think we’ve flattened the curve. I haven’t seen bursts of outbreaks in Florida. I’m still cautious around people but I don’t do the mask unless it’s required,” he said.
Goodman said he thinks the handover of the space program to commercial enterprises will catalyze innovation in space exploration.
“I think the private companies like SpaceX can be a little more daring. The commercial space program will make things move a lot faster than they normally would,” Goodman said.
Astronauts Behnken and Hurley will join commander Chris Cassidy of NASA along with Russian astronauts aboard the International Space Station by Sunday. The station over the last two decades has been home to more than 230 astronauts, scientists and other space travelers from 19 countries.
“After successfully docking, Behnken and Hurley will be welcomed aboard station and will become members of the Expedition 63 crew. They will perform tests on Crew Dragon in addition to conducting research and other tasks with the space station crew,” NASA said in a statement.
Behnken has flown two prior space missions between 2008 and 2010. His experience delivering modules to the space station as part of the STS-123 and STS-130 missions made him a prime candidate to carry out SpaceX docking. Vereen called him “the right man for the job.”
Hurley, a former Marine fighter pilot, is the spacecraft commander at the helm for launch and landing. He served as a pilot and lead robotics technician for two prior space missions, including the final space shuttle mission.
Vereen said the commercial space program will help put a woman on the moon by 2024 as part of NASA’s Artemis mission.
“Many youths didn’t know about Apollo. It is distant history to them. Now, we’re starting a new history here in 2020,” Vereen said.