The only passenger was a life-size test dummy, named Ripley after the lead character in the Alien movies. SpaceX needs to nail the debut of its crew Dragon capsule before putting people on board later this year.
This latest, flashiest Dragon is on a fast track to reach the space station Sunday morning, just 27 hours after liftoff.
It will spend five days docked to the orbiting outpost, before making a retro-style splashdown in the Atlantic next Friday – all vital training for the next space demo, possibly this summer, when two astronauts strap in.
SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk said the launch was “super stressful” to watch, but he’s hopeful the capsule will be ready to carry people later this year.
“To be frank, I’m a little emotionally exhausted,” Musk told reporters barely an hour after liftoff.
“We have to dock to the station. We have to come back, but so far it’s worked … we’ve passed the riskiest items.”
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called it “a big night for the United States of America”.
“We’re on the precipice of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil again for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011,” said Bridenstine, who got a special tour of the launch pad on the eve of launch, by Musk.
An estimated 5000 NASA and contractor employees, tourists and journalists gathered in the wee hours at Kennedy Space Center with the SpaceX launch team, as the Falcon 9 rocket blasted off before dawn from the same spot where Apollo moon rockets and space shuttles once soared.
Across the country at SpaceX Mission Control in Hawthorne, California, company employees went wild, cheering every step of the way until the capsule successfully reached orbit.
Looking on from Kennedy’s Launch Control were the two NASA astronauts who will strap in as early as July for the second space demo, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.
Shortly after liftoff, Musk asked them, “How do you feel about flying on it?”
It’s been eight years since Hurley and three other astronauts flew the last space shuttle mission, and human launches from Florida ceased.
NASA turned to private companies, SpaceX and Boeing, and has provided them US$8 billion to build and operate crew capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the space station.
Now Russian rockets are the only way to get astronauts to the 402-kilometre-high outpost. Soyuz tickets have skyrocketed over the years; NASA currently pays US$82 million per seat.
© Nine Digital Pty Ltd 2019