NASA, SpaceX successfully launch astronauts into orbit

NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken (Credit:AP)

The private rocket company SpaceX has sent two Nasa astronauts into orbit.

Doug Hurley's and Bob Behnken's Dragon capsule left Earth atop its Falcon-9 rocket exactly on time, after the first attempt three days earlier had to be aborted because of bad weather conditions.

It's the first time since the retirement of the shuttles in 2011 that an American crew has made the journey from US territory.

The mission marks the beginning of a new era in which Nasa will be purchasing transport services from the commercial sector.

Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are not only trialling a new capsule system, they are also initiating a new business model for Nasa.

The agency will no longer own the vehicles it uses but merely purchase the "taxi" service offered by SpaceX.

The launch of SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft has moved forward despite the Covid-19 pandemic, which has shuttered both private and government operations across the US. NASA says it needed to carry on with the mission in order to keep the International Space Station, a giant orbiting laboratory, fully staffed with US astronauts.

It's hoped companies other than tech billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX outfit will come in to expand the market. The aerospace giant Boeing already has a contract with Nasa to do so.

SpaceX developed Crew Dragon under NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which, for the first time in the space agency's history, handed over more than half of the design, development and testing of new human-rated spacecraft to the private sector. NASA awarded SpaceX and Boeing a fixed-price contracts to get the job done, and after Boeing suffered a major setback during an uncrewed test flight last year.

SpaceX flew a first demonstration of its new crew vehicle last year, but that had only a dummy aboard. This sortie is the first to carry humans.

Hurley's and Behnken's job on the mission is to test all onboard systems and to give their feedback to engineers.

SpaceX and Nasa want to move swiftly to the next phase of the $2.6bn contract which will see six crew taxi flights, with the first to occur at the end of August.