SpaceX successfully launched four astronauts to the International Space Station on Sunday in a spectacular evening liftoff that came days after the company’s Dragon capsule became the first privately owned and operated spacecraft to be certified by NASA for human spaceflight. SpaceX has officially begun space taxi missions for NASA.

SpaceX carried four astronauts to orbit on Sunday night, overcoming iffy weather and brief delays with the inner seal of a spacecraft hatch. After a trip of some 27.5 hours in orbit, the astronauts will dock with the International Space Station and begin a six month stay. A shiny white Falcon 9 rocket took to the skies above Kennedy Space Center here in Florida. The rocket lifted off from NASA’s historic Pad 39 here at 7:27 p.m. EDT (0027 GMT on Nov. 16) carrying four astronauts in a Crew Dragon capsule to orbit, and then returned to Earth for a drone-ship landing in the Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX earned that designation and the right to undertake what NASA hopes will be regular missions to the space station and back after it completed a test flight of two astronauts earlier this year. That May launch was the first of NASA astronauts from U.S. soil since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, forcing the United States to rely on Russia for flights to orbit for nearly a decade.
With Sunday’s launch, NASA took another step toward a new era in human spaceflight in which private companies partner with the government to build and design spacecraft and rockets. And it marked a coming-of-age moment for SpaceX, the California company founded by Elon Musk that was once viewed as a maverick start-up but is now one of the space industry’s stalwarts and one of NASA’s most significant partners.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket ignited its nine engines and lifted off at 7:27 p.m. Eastern time from launchpad 39A, the historic swath of space real estate that hoisted the crew of Apollo 11 — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins — to the moon in 1969, as well as many space shuttle missions.

The four astronauts on this flight are Michael S. Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor J. Glover of NASA, and Soichi Noguchi, a Japanese astronaut. About an hour after launching, Colonel Hopkins, the mission’s commander, remarked on the beauty of the crew’s view of Earth from orbit, then thanked the staff at SpaceX that made the launch possible.

NASA designated Sunday night’s launch as the first operational flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft built and operated by SpaceX, the rocket company started by Elon Musk. The four astronauts aboard — three from NASA and one from JAXA, the Japanese space agency — left Earth from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA and SpaceX last week completed the certification process, which provides the space agency’s seal of approval that SpaceX has met the specifications set out for regularly taking NASA astronauts to orbit. This launch, known as Crew-1, is a regularly scheduled trip to take four crew members for a six-month stay at the space station.

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