SpaceX crew capsule docks at the International Space Station

NASA plans to put two astronauts aboard by the end of the year

NASA plans to put two astronauts aboard by the end of the year

SpaceX's 16-foot-tall (4.88-meter) Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket was set for lift-off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center at 2:49 am (1049 GMT) local time.

The spacecraft attached to ISS via "soft capture" at 5:51 a.m.

America's newest capsule for astronauts is rocketing toward the International Space Station on a high-stakes test flight by SpaceX. But it could be carrying passengers as early as July.

As the capsule closed in on the space station, its nose cap was wide open like a dragon's mouth to expose the docking mechanism.

The Dragon carried 400 pounds of crew supplies and equipment - slightly more than the weight of two astronauts - to the station.

Following Saturday's launch, Behnken tweeted a note of congratulations to both SpaceX and the American space agency "for getting us another step closer to launching humans from American soil again!".

Since then, NASA and partner astronauts from the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan have been forced to hitch rides to the station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft at a current cost of more than $80 million a seat.

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"This is a critically important event in American history", Jim Bridenstine, the head of the United States space agency, told reporters, with the rocket and capsule visible behind him on the legendary launch pad where the Apollo missions to the Moon began.

As a result, NASA and SpaceX modified the mission design to constrain the thermal environment and ensure the thrusters would be ready for flight.

CNN noted that the successful docking procedure was a first for SpaceX, which has already run Dragon 1 capsule cargo missions to the ISS but previously relied on the station's robotic arm to grab that craft and manually drag it to the docking port.

While SpaceX has sent plenty of cargo Dragons to the space station, crew Dragon is a different beast.

No one was aboard the Dragon capsule launched Saturday on its first test flight, only an instrumented dummy.

While Saturday's SpaceX test mission is a crucial step in the oft-delayed project, there are questions about whether NASA can achieve its 2019 flight goal of manned flight. McClain called back to the early milestones in space exploration, including the first human to reach outer space - Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin - and the 1969 moon landing by American spaceflight Apollo 11.

Shotwell said she looks at the Earth's population and sees billions of potential customers for future SpaceX flights that feature tourists instead of astronauts."The work we're doing, and others as well, will completely change how we think about our world, our solar system, and candidly, life on Earth", she said. SpaceX plans to recycle the newly flying capsule for a high-altitude abort test this spring, along with a booster launched and retrieved a week ago.

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