NASA's Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken rode skyward aboard a sleek, white-and-black, bullet-shaped Dragon capsule on top of a Falcon 9 rocket, lifting off at 3:22 p.m. from the same launch pad used to send the Apollo astronauts to the moon a half-century ago. Minutes later, they safely entered orbit.
"Let's light this candle," Hurley said just before ignition, borrowing the words used by Alan Shepard on America's first human spaceflight, in 1961.
The two men are scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station on Sunday for a stay of up to four months, after which they will return to Earth in a Right Stuff-style splashdown at sea.
The mission unfolded amid the gloom of the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed over 100,000 Americans, and racial unrest across the U.S. 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 would be a morale-booster.
"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 before launch.
With the on-time liftoff, SpaceX, founded by Musk, the Tesla electric-car visionary, became the first private company to launch people into orbit, a feat achieved previously by only three governments: the U.S., Russia and China.
The flight also ended a nine-year launch drought for NASA, the longest such hiatus in its history. Ever since it retired the space shuttle in 2011, NASA has relied on Russian spaceships launched from Kazakhstan to take U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.
In the intervening years, NASA outsourced the job of designing and building its next generation of spaceships to SpaceX and Boeing, awarding them $7 billion in contracts in a public-private partnership aimed at driving down costs and spurring innovation. Boeing's spaceship, the Starliner capsule, is not expected to fly astronauts until early 2021.