Wld_200530 spacex liftoff-1590868145858
A SpaceX Falcon 9, with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in the Dragon crew capsule, lifts off from Pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday, May 30, 2020. For the first time in nearly a decade, astronauts blasted towards orbit aboard an American rocket from American soil, a first for a private company. (AP Photo/David J. Philip) Image Credit: AP

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: A rocket ship designed and built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company has lifted off with two Americans on a history-making flight to the International Space Station.

The spacecraft took off Saturday afternoon from the same launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, that was used during the Apollo missions to the moon a half-century ago.

The flight ushers in a new era in commercial space travel and marks the first time Nasa has launched astronauts from US soil in nearly a decade.

“Let’s light this candle,” commander Doug Hurley said just before lift-off.

Ever since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, Nasa has relied on Russian rockets launched from Kazakhstan to take US astronauts took and from the space station.

Weather clears

Earlier yesterday, stormy weather had threatened another postponement most of the day, but the skies began to clear and the outlook improved markedly in the afternoon, just ahead of the scheduled 3:22pm lift-off of the 260-foot Falcon 9.

The mission unfolded amid the gloom of the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed over 100,000 Americans, and racial unrest across the US over the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police. Nasa officials and others held out hope the flight would lift American spirits.

“Maybe there’s an opportunity here for America to maybe pause and look up and see a bright, shining moment of hope at what the future looks like, that the United States of America can do extraordinary things even in difficult times,” Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

Message to son

Veteran astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken pulled on their angular, white-and-black spacesuits with help from technicians wearing masks, gloves and black hoods that made them look like ninjas.

Before setting out for the launch pad in a gull-wing Tesla SUV — another Musk product — Behnken pantomimed a hug of his 6-year-old son, Theo, and said: “Are you going to listen to Mommy and make her life easy?” Hurley blew kisses to his 10-year-old son and wife.

Wednesday’s countdown of the rocket and its bullet-shaped Dragon capsule was halted at just under 17 minutes because of the threat of lightning.

Nervous before launch

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence returned to the Kennedy Space Centre for the second launch attempt.

“I would be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t nervous,” Bridenstine said before the launch attempt. “We want to do everything we can to minimise the risk, minimise the uncertainty, so that Bob and Doug will be safe.”

Because of the coronavirus, Nasa severely limited the number of employees, visitors and journalists allowed deep inside Kennedy Space Centre, and the crowd was relatively small, at a few thousand. At the centre’s tourist complex, though, all 4,000 tickets were snapped up in a few hours.

The space agency urged people to stay safe and watch from home, and by Nasa’s count, over 3 million viewers tuned in online. But spectators also began lining the Cape Canaveral area’s beaches and roads. Signs along the main beach drag read, “Godspeed.”

Among the spectators was Neil Wight, a machinist from Buffalo, New York, who staked out a view of the launch pad from a park in Titusville.