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Astronauts Set To Land At International Space Station After Historic Launch


Two NASA astronauts have docked with the International Space Station today. They hitched a ride inside a privately owned and operated space capsule, the SpaceX Dragon. This is the first time people have flown to the station in this kind of space taxi service. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce explains why this mission is so historic.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Gwynne Shotwell has been with SpaceX since it was founded in 2002. She's its president and COO, so she's seen plenty of rockets blast off.


GWYNNE SHOTWELL: I stopped getting nervous for launches. Today I'm nervous again - super nervous - stomach in throat.

NICOLE MANN: Five, four, three, two, one, zero. Ignition - liftoff. There's the Falcon 9 and crew Dragon. Go NASA. Go SpaceX.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The black-and-white Falcon 9 rocket rose into the sky while video from inside the Dragon capsule showed the two astronauts monitoring their progress on touch screens. When they reached space, up floated a sparkly stuffed dinosaur toy covered with blue sequins. The astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, spoke with the SpaceX team.


BOB BEHNKEN: Thanks for the great ride to space.


DOUG HURLEY: Proud of you guys and the rest of the team. Thank you so much for what you've done for us today, putting America back into low-Earth orbit from the Florida coast.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It had been almost nine years since NASA astronauts took off from the U.S. Since the space shuttles were retired, NASA has relied on Russian rockets. Kathy Lueders manages NASA's Commercial Crew Program. She stressed that this is a test flight.


KATHY LUEDERS: We're going to stay vigilant until we bring them safely home.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It was President George W. Bush's administration that started a program to get companies like SpaceX to begin delivering cargo to the station. And then, under President Barack Obama, that program was expanded to help companies develop new vehicles that could transport astronauts. After watching the SpaceX launch at Kennedy Space Center, however, President Donald Trump touted his own administration's efforts, saying that NASA was lost and that grass had been growing on the center's runway when he took office.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Today, we once again proudly launch American astronauts on American rockets, the best in the world, from right here on American soil.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He did give credit to Elon Musk, the wealthy entrepreneur who founded SpaceX with a goal of making humanity a multiplanetary species.


TRUMP: He's a little different than a lot of other people. He liked rockets.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: At a post-launch press briefing, Musk seemed stunned.


ELON MUSK: I mean, I'm really quite overcome with emotion on this day, so it's kind of hard to talk, frankly. Been 18 years working towards this goal, so it seems hard to believe that it's happened.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And it happens just as much of the country was watching scenes of anger and unrest over police treatment of African Americans. Musk said that the launch was something humanity could be excited about.


MUSK: It's just a fundamentally positive, good thing. And you know, I think we need more positive, good things in this world.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Musk choked up as he talked about meeting the astronauts' kids and telling them that SpaceX was doing everything possible to keep their dads safe. He said over the years, many people had doubted his company's plan to bring down the cost of spaceflight with reusable rockets.


MUSK: To be totally frank, I doubted us, too. So I thought we, you know, had maybe - when starting SpaceX - maybe had a 10% chance of reaching orbit.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And he said at times, SpaceX came very close to going out of business.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.