Rocket fire torched a black sky Sunday night as Resilience, a SpaceX Crew Dragon Falcon 9 aircraft, launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, taking with it four crewmen.
For the first time in world history, a privately-owned company has been contracted by the United States government to take its astronauts into space.
"It marks the end of the development phase of the system," Phil McAlister, the director of commercial fight development at NASA, told The New York Times. "For the first time in history, there is a commercial capability from a private sector entity to safely and reliably transport people to space."
"NASA is delivering on its commitment to the American people and our international partners to provide safe, reliable, and cost-effective missions to the International Space Station using American private industry," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
"This is an important mission for NASA, SpaceX and our partners at JAXA, and we look forward to watching this crew arrive at station to carry on our partnership for all of humanity."
Their journey, which has been estimated to last 27.5 hours, will bring the four crewmen to the International Space Station for a six-month stay. Resilience will "dock autonomously to the forward port of the station’s Harmony module." NASA is providing live coverage of that docking, hatch opening, and the welcoming ceremony aboard the ISS via its website.
In addition to being the first of six crewed missions NASA and SpaceX will fly as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, the mission has plenty of other firsts. It marks the "first flight of the NASA-certified commercial system designed for crew transportation." This is the first international crew to launch aboard an American commercial spacecraft. This is the first time the ISS crew will be more than six. And the first time the Federal Aviation Administration has authorized commercial, human orbital spaceflight launch
The crew aboard the SpaceX aircraft include NASA astronauts Michel Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker. The fourth passenger is Soichi Noguchi, a member of Japan’s JAXA space agency.
The journey to the ISS is a routine trip for NASA; there's maintenance to do and research to gather. But for McAlister, this launch represents the beginning of a new chapter in the development of space travel.
Up until Sunday, the United States had been using Russian Soyuz rockets to conduct their NASA missions. According to the NYT, this is a practice that costs just over $90 million per seat. Government-funded space programs are notoriously expensive, which is one of the reasons the Obama administration largely put NASA on the backburner.
That's why back in 2014, NASA tasked SpaceX with creating a vehicle that could make the trip to the ISS every six months—an idea that on paper would slash costs and increase efficiency.
Six years later, Resilience's launch is the completion of that agreement and now SpaceX will be NASA's primary launch provider, costing the agency just shy of $55 million dollars per seat. But SpaceX isn't the only company developing a private ride into space. Boeing is also designing its own private space capsules, the first of which is being called the CST-100 Starliner. So far, Boeing is the only industry player that's close to being able to compete with SpaceX's initiative.
About an hour into the flight, Hopkins, the mission leader aboard the Resilience, let mission control know they had successfully left the atmosphere and entered the Earth orbit en-route to the station.
"That was one heck of a ride," he said. "Resilience is in orbit."