Elon Musk's SpaceX was due to launch an unmanned crew capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket early on Saturday, bound for the International Space Station, a major step toward National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) goal of reviving the USA human spaceflight programme this year.
At 2:49 a.m. ET, the American aerospace company founded by Elon Musk staged its first launch of Crew Dragon.
Hans Koenigsmann, Vice President of Mission Assurance at SpaceX said Ripley was vital for future manned flights. No private company has ever launched humans into orbit, and during a webcast of the launch, SpaceX employees could be seen packed into the main foyer of the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., cheering each milestone.
Since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA has been unable to fly people to space and has been forced to rely on Russian Federation to ferry its astronauts to the space station, the orbiting laboratory about 250 miles above the Earth.
Elon Musk sees a bright and busy future for SpaceX's newly debuted Crew Dragon capsule.
Bridenstine is optimistic about both SpaceX and Boeing capsules, saying astronauts should begin using them by this year's end.
The only passenger was a life-size test dummy named Ripley.
An estimated 5,000 NASA and contractor employees, tourists and journalists gathered in the wee hours at Kennedy Space Center with the SpaceX launch team, as the Falcon 9 rocket blasted off before dawn from the same spot where Apollo moon rockets and space shuttles once soared. While Falcon 9's have completed many successful lift-offs, today's was special because it is the first outing for SpaceX's new Crew Dragon module, created to take astronauts into orbit.
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Nasa chief Jim Bridenstine said it was a new era where "we are looking forward to be being one customer, as an agency and as a country".
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket blasted off at 2:49 a.m. Saturday from pad 39A here, the same launch pad that hoisted Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon and numerous space shuttle missions as well.
The companies can still launch people this year - but things will have to go smoothly.
The launch marks the first under NASA's commercial crew program. But he stressed it was more important to move deliberately so "we get it right".
"But we also want to make sure we have our own capability to get back and forth to the International Space Station".
It features four seats, three windows, touch-screen computer displays and life-support equipment, as well as eight abort engines to pull the capsule to safety in the event of a launch emergency.
California's SpaceX firm has carried out a demonstration of a new rocket and capsule combination.