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Two American astronauts lifted off into space Saturday afternoon, for the first time on a private rocket, nearly a decade after the last launch of astronauts from American territory.
Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken headed for orbit at 3:22 p.m. EDT, on schedule, from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a rocket, designed and built by a private company. They are scheduled to dock with the International Space Station on Sunday.
The California-based SpaceX Aerospace Co. is owned by billionaire Elon Musk.
"Let's light this candle," commander Hurley said before liftoff, words used by Alan Shepard on America's first human spaceflight, in 1961.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence flew to Florida for the launch, the second time this week. They were joined by more than 3 million viewers online, according to NASA's count, and more spectators who lined beaches and roads nearby to witness the launch.
"I'm so proud of the people at NASA, all the people that worked together, public and private. When you see a sight like that it's incredible," Trump said after liftoff.
At a rally held a short time later at NASA's massive 525-foot-high Vehicle Assembly Building, the president added his congratulations and an update on the astronauts.
"Today, as we gather in this special place to celebrate not only the launch of a new spacecraft but also our nation's triumphant bold and triumphant return to the stars," he said. "It's a special day. Moments ago, the world bore witness to the flight of the first new manned U.S. spacecraft in nearly 40 years since the space shuttle launched in 1981 - a long time ago. I am thrilled to announce that the SpaceX Dragon capsule has successfully reached low Earth orbit and that our astronauts are safe and sound."
The vice president commended Musk for a "job well done."
Pence said that as the nation deals with the coronavirus and the racial strife, "I believe with all my heart that millions of Americans today will find the same inspiration and unity of purpose that we found in those days in the 1960s" during Apollo.
The first launch attempt scheduled for last Wednesday was postponed because of stormy weather in the vicinity of the Kennedy Space Center in the southeastern state of Florida.
Astronauts were last launched into space from the U.S. in 2011, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, retired its space shuttle fleet, forcing the U.S. to rely on partnerships with Russia's space agency to carry U.S. astronauts to the orbiting International Space Station.
Hurley and Behnken are to orbit the Earth inside the newly designed Crew Dragon capsule for about 19 hours before trying to dock at the space station.