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'Copy Shannon' - historic SpaceX rocket passes over Ireland and docks with International Space Station

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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. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

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. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

AP

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. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Just under 19 hours after launching from Florida, SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley docked with the International Space Station on Sunday, marking the first U.S. space capsule to do so with a crew since 2011.

The launch on Saturday by SpaceX, the private rocket company of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, represented another milestone for the reusable rockets it pioneered to make spaceflight less costly and more frequent.

It also marked the first time that commercially developed space vehicles - owned and operated by a private entity rather than NASA - have carried Americans into orbit.

The rocket crossed Ireland at around 10pm last night, when the astronauts aboard told their station: "Copy Shannon."

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center at 19.22pm, launching Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on a 19-hour ride aboard the company's newly designed Crew Dragon capsule bound for the International Space Station.

Just before liftoff, Hurley said, “SpaceX, we’re go for launch. Let’s light this candle,” paraphrasing the famous comment uttered on the launch pad in 1961 by Alan Shepard, the first American flown into space.

Minutes after launch, the first-stage booster rocket of the Falcon 9 separated from the upper second-stage rocket and flew itself back to Earth to descend safely onto a landing platform floating in the Atlantic.

High above the Earth, the Crew Dragon jettisoned moments later from the second-stage rocket, sending the capsule on its way to the space station.

The exhilarating spectacle of the rocket soaring flawlessly into the heavens came as a welcome triumph for a nation gripped by racially-charged civil unrest as well as ongoing fear and economic upheaval from the coronavirus pandemic.

The Falcon 9 took off from the same launch pad used by NASA's final space shuttle flight, piloted by Hurley, in 2011. Since then, NASA astronauts have had to hitch rides into orbit aboard Russia's Soyuz spacecraft.

“It's incredible, the power, the technology,” said US President Donald Trump, who was at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida for the launch. “That was a beautiful sight to see.”

The mission's first launch attempt on Wednesday was called off with less than 17 minutes remaining on the countdown clock. Weather again threatened Saturday's launch, but cleared in time to proceed with the mission.

Reuters