SpaceX, a commercial company founded by Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind the Tesla electric auto, launched its Crew Dragon spacecraft early yesterday, lifting off on the company's Falcon 9 rocket from Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
Though no human crew was on board, locked within the capsule was a flight dummy nicknamed Ripley and an anthropomorphic plushie of planet Earth created to indicate when the capsule had reached zero gravity.
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.
Bridenstine is optimistic about both SpaceX and Boeing capsules, saying astronauts should begin using them by this year's end. After a successful lift off the ship is now heading towards the International Space Station (ISS) where it will be docked for five days before heading back to Earth.
In another success, the rocket's first stage returned to Earth, landing on a platform 500 kilometers off the Florida coast in the Atlantic.
Since then, it has been buying seats in Russian Soyuz rockets - the only ones capable of transporting humans there. In 2014, as part of the "commercial crew" program, the agency awarded contracts worth a combined $6.8 billion to SpaceX and Boeing to develop spacecraft capable of flying up to four astronauts to the station at a time.
Boeing said it expects to test-fly its Starliner capsule next month, with astronauts on board possibly in August.
Saturday's flight aims to test the vessel's reliability and safety in real-life conditions. NASA now pays $82 million per seat. It will not be tested until April, in a mission similar to SpaceX's.
Highlights from the SpaceX's historic Demo-1 Crew Dragon Test Flight from Kennedy Space Center.
Ripley's not just along for the ride: The anthropomorphic test device, as NASA calls it, is there to make sure the Crew Dragon is safe and comfortable for humans.
For SpaceX, this flight is a key milestone in its 17-year history.
The capsule is now in orbit, while the Falcon 9 safely landed on one of the drone ships in the Atlantic.
For SpaceX, sending an astronaut into orbit would be a culmination of years of hard work and high-risk investment.
Now NASA said it is on the verge of recapturing some of the national pride that has been a hallmark of its human spaceflight program since the beginning of the Space Age. "We're going to learn a ton from this mission".
For employees of SpaceX-who have worked to bring Crew Dragon to fruition for most of the last decade-Saturday morning's launch proved cathartic.