CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX 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 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 launch was punctuated less than 10 minutes later, when the rocket booster returned to Earth and landed on a ship at sea so that it could be reused on another mission.

On board the SpaceX spacecraft were three NASA astronauts, Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover, as well as a Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi. Though the space shuttle was capable of flying as many as eight people, Sunday’s flight was the first time four astronauts have ever flown in a capsule.

While the launch was successful, the crew still had a day-long journey to the space station. They are scheduled to reach the space station at about 11 p.m. ET Monday. The spacecraft will then proceed slowly, using its onboard navigation, to autonomously park itself on one of the station’s ports, while whizzing around Earth in orbit at 17,500 mph.

“We’re not done yet. We need to keep going,” Kathy Lueders, the director of NASA’s human spaceflight directorate said during a news conference after the launch. “That spacecraft is out there with those precious crew members on them, and we’re going to get them to the International Space Station. ... Right now we’re not expecting any issues and I’m sure docking tomorrow we’ll go smoothly.”

The crew will stay on board the space station for about six months, joining American Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov. The mission comes as NASA and its international partners this month are celebrating 20 years of continuous human presence on the space station, an orbiting laboratory about 250 miles above Earth.

Though heralded as a success that will open spaceflight to others, the road to this point was long and at times tortured. NASA first entrusted the private sector to fly cargo and supplies to the space station in 2008 under the George W. Bush administration, awarding contracts to SpaceX and then Orbital Sciences.

Allowing the private sector to fly missions was a controversial decision, and many critics at the time said it was unthinkable that NASA would allow the private sector to fly astronauts. But that changed under the Obama administration, which awarded “commercial crew program” contracts to SpaceX and Boeing, worth $6.8 billion combined, to build spacecraft capable of flying astronauts to the station.

Initially, both companies struggled to meet NASA’s rigorous standards for human spaceflight and suffered setbacks that delayed the program for years. SpaceX lost two of its Falcon 9 rockets in explosions, one during a cargo resupply mission, the other while being fueled on the launchpad. And one of its Crew Dragon spacecraft also blew up on a test stand.

No one was injured in any of those accidents, and the company pressed on, finding solutions to the problems while working alongside NASA to make adjustments as problems were detected. That included swapping out two engines on the Falcon 9 that flew Sunday after technicians discovered that some vent holes were clogged.

If the technical challenges weren’t enough, NASA and SpaceX were also warily eyeing Tropical Storm Eta’s erratic path across the Florida Keys, then up the Gulf of Mexico before shooting across the top of the Florida peninsula and jetting off east into the Atlantic. Rough seas in the area where the booster was to return to Earth forced the delay of the launch from Saturday until Sunday.

NASA also has been forced to take extra precautions to protect the astronauts and ground crews from the surging coronavirus pandemic, steps that were highlighted Friday when Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, announced that he had tested both positive and negative for the coronavirus. NASA regulations prohibit anyone with a positive test from being present for the launch, and Musk did not witness the launch from SpaceX’s control center at the Kennedy Space Center.

In the post-launch news conference, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, who came here for the launch in his place, said that he "was tied in very closely with the launch. I have the texts to prove it. As usual, regardless of where he is on the planet, he’s is watching closely and providing guidance and support.”

Throughout it all, the astronauts remained upbeat and confident ahead of the launch. The crew arrived at the Kennedy Space Center about a week before the launch, waving and smiling.

“We are ready for this launch,” Hopkins said. “We are ready for the six months of work that is waiting for us on board the International Space Station. And we are ready for the return.”

Boeing, however, continues to have problems. Its Starliner spacecraft ran into trouble almost immediately after reaching orbit last December in a test flight with no astronauts on board.

A software problem made the flight computers think it was at a completely different point in the mission. Another software issue could have caused the service module to collide with the crew module, but that was caught in time, and controllers on the ground were able to beam up a fix. Still, the mission ended after just two days, and the spacecraft never docked with the space station, one of the primary objectives.

Below are the updates from the SpaceX’s capsule launch.

November 15, 2020 at 8:48 PM EST
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The International Space Station can be seen with the naked eye from Earth

By Hamza Shaban

The International Space Station, the destination for four astronauts aboard the SpaceX capsule that launched Sunday, is visible to the naked eye and appears as a fast moving plane, according to NASA.

It’s the third brightest object in the sky, flying in orbit about 240 miles (or 400 kilometers) above the Earth.

You can use the space agency’s “spot the station tool" to find when the station will pass overhead.

Members of Crew-1 are scheduled to dock with the ISS at about 11 p.m. Eastern time Monday. Shortly before 2 a.m. Tuesday, the ISS will hold a welcoming ceremony for the incoming astronauts.

November 15, 2020 at 8:22 PM EST
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Falcon 9 booster lands successfully on drone ship

By Hamza Shaban

After blasting off from Kennedy Space Center, the big moment in the flight of SpaceX’s Crew-1 mission was the entry of the capsule, with its four astronauts, into orbit. That took place as scheduled about 12 minutes into the flight.

But another key moment for the future of NASA’s commercial crew program had happened just a few minutes before when the first stage booster of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully detached from and landed on a drone ship in the Atlantic.

The recovery of the booster rocket is central to the partnership between SpaceX and NASA — and to SpaceX’s plans to seriously reduce the cost of routine flights to the International Space Station.

Historically, boosters have been ditched in the ocean, a practice that SpaceX founder Elon Musk has equated to throwing away an airplane after every flight. But SpaceX developed a system that returns the booster to Earth, saving millions with each launch. It’s executed the return dozens of times.

SpaceX plans to reuse the booster from Sunday night’s launch for its second operational flight, slated for March 2021, making its safe landing on the drone ship named “Just Read the Instructions” a major moment of success.

November 15, 2020 at 7:45 PM EST
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A successful SpaceX launch came after years of work

By Christian Davenport

The seemingly seamless countdown and launch of four astronauts to the International Space Station on Sunday came with a spectacular evening liftoff just days after the company’s Dragon capsule became the first privately owned and operated spacecraft to be certified by NASA for human spaceflight.

But the road to this point was long and at times tortured.

NASA first entrusted the private sector to fly cargo and supplies to the space station in 2008 under the George W. Bush administration, awarding contracts to SpaceX and a company that was then known as Orbital Sciences and has since been subsumed by Northrup Grumman.

Allowing the private sector to fly missions was a controversial decision, and many critics at the time said it was unthinkable that NASA would allow the private sector to fly astronauts. But that changed under the Obama administration, which awarded “commercial crew program” contracts to SpaceX and Boeing, worth $6.8 billion combined, to build spacecraft capable of flying astronauts to the station.

Initially, both companies struggled to meet NASA’s rigorous standards for human spaceflight and suffered setbacks that delayed the program for years. SpaceX lost two of its Falcon 9 rockets in explosions, one during a cargo resupply mission, the other while being fueled on the launchpad. And one of its Crew Dragon spacecraft also blew up on a test stand.

No one was injured in any of those accidents, and the company pressed on, finding solutions to the problems while working alongside NASA to make adjustments as problems were detected. That included swapping out two engines on the Falcon 9 that flew Sunday after technicians discovered that some vent holes were clogged.

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 launch was punctuated less than 10 minutes later, when the rocket booster returned to Earth and landed on a ship at sea so that it could be reused on another mission.

On board the SpaceX spacecraft were three NASA astronauts, Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover, as well as a Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi. Though the space shuttle was capable of flying as many as eight people, Sunday’s flight was the first time four astronauts have ever flown in a capsule.

The crew will stay on board the space station for about six months, joining American Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov. The mission comes as NASA and its international partners this month are celebrating 20 years of continuous human presence on the space station, an orbiting laboratory about 250 miles above Earth.

Sunday’s flight put SpaceX’s Dragon on a trajectory to reach the space station at about 11 p.m. Monday. If all goes well, the spacecraft will proceed slowly, using its onboard navigation to autonomously park itself on one of the station’s ports, while whizzing around Earth in orbit, traveling 17,500 mph.

November 15, 2020 at 7:18 PM EST
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What’s coming for NASA in a Biden administration?

By Christian Davenport

President-elect Biden hasn’t talked much about space or what his administration’s plans are for it. But it has appointed a transition team that will help guide the new administration. Leading the effort is Ellen Stofan, the head of the National Air and Space Museum and NASA’s former chief scientist.

SpaceX will still be launching crews to the station. But other programs seem less certain. The new administration is likely to keep the Trump administration’s Artemis program to return to the moon, Democratic officials have said. But instead of pushing to get astronauts there by 2024, as the Trump White House has mandated, NASA would likely aim for a more realistic goal sometime after that.

Democratic officials have said that their pick for a new NASA administrator would likely be a woman, and while there are lots of names floating around, nothing has been decided.

It’s also clear that under a Biden administration, NASA would be more focused on Earth science and helping to combat climate change.

November 15, 2020 at 7:15 PM EST
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SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is fueled in final crucial step before launch

By Hamza Shaban

SpaceX has completed loading propellant on the Falcon 9 rocket in a crucial late-stage step before astronauts launch into space.

The fueling stage involves two main components, the loading of rocket-grade kerosene and liquid oxygen, which creates the massive plumes of what appears as white smoke — the oxygen changing from liquid form into gas form around the rocket in Florida’s humid air.

Before the propellants were loaded, the launch escape system was armed. That system allows the crew to abort from any point on the launchpad all the way up to orbit. In the event of an emergency, the capsule would propel itself off the Falcon 9 rocket, splashing down off the coast, in a rescue scenario. NASA and SpaceX tout the ability to abort from the pad or midflight as a safety upgrade, which the shuttle program lacked.

November 15, 2020 at 6:59 PM EST
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Experienced Japanese astronaut defies age to fly on SpaceX, still feels like a kid

By Simon Denyer

TOKYO — Experienced Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi will become the first non-American to fly on a mission launched by SpaceX, and his participation has been welcomed with excitement and pride in his home country.

The 55-year-old previously flew inside the space shuttle Discovery in 2005, and also used a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the International Space Station for a 161-day stay between 2009 and 2010. He’s determined to show he is still up to the job.

“My physical and cognitive abilities will be challenged but I want to compete with the younger generation by duping them with my experience,” he said in an online conversation with Japan’s science and technology minister in October, Kyodo News reported. “I want to hang in there to keep up with the younger generation.”

Laughing, Minister Koichi Hagiuda, who’s 57, said: “Let’s show how determined middle-aged people are.”

But at a news conference last week, Noguchi said his experience didn’t dim his anticipation of what lay ahead.

“I feel very excited just like an elementary school kid who cannot sleep the night before an athletic meet, and also have a feeling of tension bracing for the important day with my colleagues,” he said.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency has given the mission a catchphrase “We call creatures who don’t stop taking on challenges humans,” and Noguchi echoed this in his comments.

“Humans grow by challenging today what we could not do yesterday, and by repeating that challenge,” he said. “I want this mission to be one where I can share dreams and hopes for our new future in this tough situation with everyone in Japan. Please send us cheers.”

Over the past few weeks, Noguchi has been tweeting and creating videos on his YouTube channel to give his Japanese fans a better understanding of the mission and the technology involved, in a chatty and accessible way.

November 15, 2020 at 6:55 PM EST
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SpaceX is certified for flights to the space station

By Christian Davenport

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — In May, SpaceX pulled off a successful test flight that sent a pair of NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, for a two-month stay on the International Space Station. Now, NASA has certified the company for regular flights to the station and back, carrying full contingents of up to four astronauts for even longer visits to the station. That marks the first time a commercial company has been authorized to fly NASA astronauts to the space station.

NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations mission directorate, Kathy Lueders, said the certification is NASA’s way of telling SpaceX, “You can safely fly our crew members to and from the International Space Station. You’ve shown us the data, and we trust you to do that. There’s a big trust factor here. This is a big step for us.”

Still, the capsule has had some problems. After the test flight, SpaceX noticed that there was more erosion on the heat shield than they anticipated. As a result, SpaceX reinforced a few points where the crew capsule connects to the spacecraft’s trunk, an unpressurized cargo hold that is jettisoned before reentering the atmosphere.

SpaceX also suffered a problem with its engines that caused an abort of a satellite launch for the U.S. Space Force with just two seconds left on the countdown clock. SpaceX later discovered the problem was caused by a bit of lacquer, used to prevent corrosion before being cleaned off, that was getting stuck in tiny vent holes in some of its engine valves.

As a result, SpaceX swapped out two engines of the Falcon 9 booster to be used in Sunday’s flight and has said they are ready to go.

November 15, 2020 at 6:45 PM EST
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On space station, astronauts speak a mix of English and Russian

By Hamza Shaban

At the International Space Station, global cooperation spans languages.

The three people already at the ISS communicate with each other in a mix of English and Russian, NASA said, allowing American Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov to speak with one another seamlessly.

In addition to their technical skills and scientific expertise, all NASA astronauts learn to speak Russian. So when the crew of the SpaceX mission reaches the ISS, they too will put their Russian language skills to use. While cosmonauts Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov most likely speak with each other in their native language, NASA said, all of the crew members communicate in a mix of English and Russian.

November 15, 2020 at 6:26 PM EST
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Elon Musk’s coronavirus tests keep him from launch

By Christian Davenport

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA has a policy that bars anyone with a positive coronavirus test from entering the Kennedy Space Center. That’s one reason Elon Musk, Space X’s founder and chief executive, won’t be present for Sunday’s launch.

On Friday, Musk tweeted that he had taken four coronavirus tests and that two had come back positive, and two, negative. He said he had minor symptoms, including a fever but was feeling okay.

But that sent SpaceX and NASA scrambling to determine if Musk had had contact with anyone who would have had contact with the astronauts. By the afternoon, SpaceX determined that the astronauts, who have been in quarantine for weeks, had not been exposed.

“There should be no impact on this mission,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told The Washington Post on Friday. “I think we’re in good shape, and we’re looking forward to a good launch.”

Given the positive tests, however, Bridenstine said that under NASA rules Musk would not be allowed at the Kennedy Space Center, where SpaceX has its launch control center. And NASA officials stressed they would continue to enforce safety rules as the pandemic surges.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re Elon Musk or Jim Bridenstine,” Norm Knight, NASA’s deputy manager for flight operations, told a news conference Friday evening. “If you have not met those protocols, or if any of those protocols have been compromised, then we’re not going to let you near the crew.”

Even when there isn’t a pandemic, NASA goes to great lengths to ensure astronauts remain healthy in the days and weeks leading up to their flights. The last thing NASA wants is a sick astronaut on the International Space Station, where astronauts live in close quarters and disease could spread quickly.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell is expected to be on hand for the launch in Musk’s place.

November 15, 2020 at 6:14 PM EST
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After its Starliner capsule failed its test mission, Boeing hired a former SpaceX developer to oversee software

By Christian Davenport

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX isn’t the only company that has a contract from NASA to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. Boeing does as well. But Boeing’s efforts to earn NASA’s trust to do that has suffered a series of setbacks, and it’s not clear exactly when it will be able to fly its first mission with crews.

Late last year, its Starliner spacecraft ran into trouble almost immediately after reaching orbit during a test flight without any astronauts on board. Software problems made it think it was at a completely different point in the mission, directing its thruster to fire at the wrong time. Another problem, which was caught and fixed in time, could have caused the service and crew modules to potentially collide with each other upon separation.

Since then, Boeing has been working to fix the problems, but the progress has been slow. It initially said it would refly the test flight without crew by December or January, but it now appears that flight might be pushed back even further.

Meantime, however, Boeing has created a new position, vice president of software engineering, to help the company deal with its complex systems. In addition to the software problems on Starliner, it has struggled with the software on its 737 Max airplanes, which crashed twice, killing a total of 346 people.

The person it has hired for the job is Jinnah Hosein, who worked at Aurora, a self-driving vehicle company. But he also previously worked at SpaceX, where he led software development for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets and for the Crew Dragon capsule.

November 15, 2020 at 6:09 PM EST
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Before docking with Space Station, astronauts will get some sleep

By Hamza Shaban

After the Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station was delayed from Saturday until Sunday, the updated schedule will offer the four astronauts extra time in low Earth orbit before docking.

That will give the crew enough time to get some sleep after a long day of preparation. Crew members of the SpaceX mission will have eight hours to rest, NASA said, after which they will wake up and continue the mission and eventually dock with the International Space Station.

Under the previous launch schedule for Saturday, crew members were scheduled to dock about eight hours after launch. But after liftoff this evening, the astronauts won’t dock with the International Space Station for more than 24 hours — at about 11 p.m. Eastern time Monday.

November 15, 2020 at 6:05 PM EST
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The ‘Times Square’ of space real estate, updated by SpaceX

By Christian Davenport

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Elon Musk has called the launchpad SpaceX is using tonight the “Times Square” of spaceflight real estate, a sacrosanct piece of land on the Florida Space Coast with a long and rich history.

Launchpad 39A is where many of the Apollo missions lifted off, including Apollo 11, whose crew members Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the moon’s surface in 1969 (the third member of the crew, Michael Collins, orbited the moon during their trip to the surface).

Launchpad 39A was also where many space shuttle missions took off. But after NASA retired the space shuttle, it sat dormant, rusting away in the salt air.

In 2014, SpaceX signed a 20-year lease for the pad and has been flying its Falcon 9 rockets from there since. Over the years, the company has renovated it extensively, giving it a sleek arm that the astronauts walk down to board their spacecraft. The launch tower is now black and white, mimicking the color of the rocket and the spacesuits the astronauts wear.

“I think it’s a great honor, and I have incredible respect for the hallowed ground that it is,” Musk said in an interview in 2016. “I would have never imagined that we would have the same opportunity to launch from the same launchpad as Apollo 11.”

November 15, 2020 at 5:54 PM EST
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Why the launch was moved to Sunday

By Christian Davenport

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Delays in launches are not unusual. SpaceX’s test launch in May also was delayed for inclement weather.

But the decision to move this launch from Saturday to Sunday evening was somewhat unusual because the forecast high winds and rough seas weren’t expected to affect the launch itself, but SpaceX’s ability to recover the first-stage booster of the Falcon 9 rocket, which is supposed to land on an autonomous ship in the Atlantic Ocean after it separates from the remainder of the rocket.

This booster is particularly important because SpaceX intends to use it for its next flight of astronauts, the Crew-2 mission, now scheduled for March 30.

The March flight would mark the first time NASA has allowed a crew to launch on a booster that had flown previously.

SpaceX has made an art out of landing boosters. Traditionally, rocket first stages were ditched into the ocean after propelling a payload to orbit. But SpaceX for five years has been flying its boosters back to Earth, landing them either on a ship at sea or on land. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said that having reusable rockets is a key step toward lowering the cost of space travel, which in turn could make it more accessible.

November 15, 2020 at 5:40 PM EST
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Weather looks good for tonight’s SpaceX launch

By Jason Samenow

Early Sunday evening, the weather around Cape Canaveral seemed favorable for launch.

Skies featured just scattered clouds, while winds were light with temperatures in the 70s.

The National Weather Service forecast for the evening indicated a 30 percent chance of showers through midnight. Radar showed widely scattered showers 30 to 45 miles inland drifting slowly toward the coast, but nothing appeared terribly ominous.

The Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron, which provides official launch forecasts, wrote early Sunday that there was a 50 percent chance weather conditions would prevent liftoff, based on the potential for showers, lightning and tall clouds in the area.