SpaceX successfully launches unmanned crew capsule into orbit

The Dragon crew capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket at the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida

Crew Dragon launched to orbit for the first time ever this morning (March 2), kicking off an uncrewed, six-day demonstration mission to the International Space Station (ISS) known as Demo-1.

The capsule from the California company founded in 2002 by entrepreneur Elon Musk didn't include actual crew members - except for a life-size dummy named Ripley, who was named after the lead character in the "Alien" movies. The site of the landmark launch was Pad 39A, which has previously seen NASA's Saturn rockets carry astronauts to the moon aboard Apollo spacecraft and the famous launches of NASA's space shuttles.

"It's been a long eight years", said Bob Cabana, the Kennedy Space Center's director and a former astronaut. The spacecraft will rely on its computers to autonomously fly the spacecraft gently alongside the station and then attach itself to one of the docking ports.

"They are fathers. I think it is really important for all employees, all engineers and technicians at SpaceX to understand the precious-I don't even want to call it a gift-the responsibility we've been given", said Shotwell.

If all goes smoothly, Crew Dragon could conduct a second test flight, with live crew, as soon as April.

Speaking of the Atlantic, the reusable Falcon 9 booster that launched Crew Dragon successfully landed on the "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship drifting along in said ocean, approximately 10 minutes after liftoff. Both Boeing and SpaceX are hoping to have a manned flight later this year. The Crew Dragon includes a new emergency escape system, first tested in 2015, that's created to carry astronauts to safety if there's an emergency. "Right now, the date is July and that's what we're planning for, but if we change that date we'll make sure people know when it's the right time".

To do that, the capsule is fitted with life-support systems, a fourth parachute (instead of the usual three) and more powerful thrusters to help control the vessel, should anything go wrong.

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Dragon 2 is a reusable spacecraft designed as a successor to the Dragon space freighter.

As many as seven astronauts could squeeze in, although four will be the norm once flights get going, allowing for a little cargo room.

The launch comes nine years after NASA invested about £38million ($50million) into its Commercial Crew Program.

Saturday's flight "is the next critical step in putting people on Dragon", he said.

"When you're here, right, there's a pride in the country".

Despite SpaceX's success at recovering and reusing its rockets, NASA is insisting on brand new boosters from SpaceX for the crew capsule flights. The capsule will then spend five days docked to the orbiting outpost and then return to Earth on Friday, landing in the Atlantic.

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