Photos from the launch of SpaceX's first spacecraft created to transport humans

A Falcon rocket blasted off with the crew Dragon capsule early Saturday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SpaceX's 16-foot-tall (4.9 meter) Crew Dragon capsule, atop a Falcon 9 rocket, lifted off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center at TK 2:49 a.m. (0749 GMT), carrying a test dummy nicknamed Ripley.

The successful launch puts SpaceX one step closer to an historic landmark: Crew Dragon could be the first commercially built spacecraft to carry NASA astronauts to orbit. Early on Sunday morning, the capsule will dock with the ISS to drop off its cargo.

"Today represents a new era in space flight" said Jim Bridenstine, head of the USA space agency who sees the launch as a step toward the privatization of low Earth orbit. That includes interior life-support systems, autonomous docking capability, an integrated launch escape system, and solar panels built into the spacecraft itself.

Planning has been delayed by around three years, with the first manned SpaceX flight still pencilled in for July, though officials frequently refer to the end of 2019 as a more realistic deadline.

For SpaceX, sending an astronaut into orbit would be a culmination of years of hard work and high-risk investment. The unmanned launch is the first stage of the Demo-1 mission, created to test the capabilities of the capsule over the next week, as it heads toward the International Space Station.

He said: "That is something we have to practise in preparation for crewed flight to make sure we're fast in the right spots, and have all the potential medical attention at the right time".

"We're going to learn a ton from this mission", said Kathy Lueders, the manager of Nasa's Commercial Crew programme.

Boeing aims to conduct the first test flight of its Starliner capsule in April, with astronauts on board possibly in August.

The mission, called Demonstration-1 or DM-1, is meant to show NASA that Crew Dragon is safe for future human crew members. But he stressed it was more important to move deliberately so "we get it right".

About 5,000 NASA and contractor employees, tourists and journalists gathered Saturday to watch the launch. Musk said the redesigned capsule has "hardly a part in common" with its predecessor.

"Seeing a success like this definitely gives us a lot of confidence in the future, " Behnken said. He marvels at how the Dragon has just 30 buttons and touch screens, compared with the space shuttle cockpit's 2,000 switches and circuit breakers.

At Saturday's post-launch news conference, Musk said he'd be happy to fly on the revamped Dragon.

Musk anticipates eventually selling Dragon rides to private citizens, much as the Russians have done, first to the space station and then perhaps beyond.

  • Joey Payne