The United States took a major step toward returning to manned spaceflight when SpaceX's Crew Demo-1 mission lifted off today at 2:49 am EST atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The demonstration flight is unmanned, but carries a test dummy as the spacecraft heads for a Sunday rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS).

Though SpaceX's Dragon cargo ships have flown to the ISS 16 times, Crew Demo-1 is a significant advance. The Crew Dragon is one of two spacecraft, along with Boeing's CST-100 Starliner, that NASA is funding as part of its Commercial Crew Program to return the launching of manned missions from American soil for the first time since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011.

Unlike the Dragon, the Crew Dragon and its launcher are man-rated. That is, they are designed to carry astronauts safely into orbit and return them to Earth. The capsule is equipped with a life support system and an emergency abort system. In addition, the spacecraft and launcher are engineered to a very high level of reliability and keep all accelerations and vibrations well within the limits of human tolerances.

Currently, the Crew Dragon is carrying out a series of orbital maneuvers that will allow it to rendezvous with the space station at about 6:00 am EST (11:00 GMT) on Sunday, March 3. The spacecraft is designed to operate autonomously, though it is equipped with manual controls that will allow a pilot to take over in an emergency when it starts carrying passengers.

The Crew Dragon is loaded with 400 lb (181 kg) of supplies and equipment. In addition, one of the astronaut seats is a test dummy called "Ripley," which has built-in sensors to gather biometric data. The capsule will remain docked to the station until March 8, when it will return for a splashdown and recovery in the Pacific Ocean.

After the launch, SpaceX made a successful nighttime powered landing of the Falcon 9 first stage on the "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.

The video below is a replay of the launch live stream.

Source: SpaceX

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