SpaceX launches Crew Dragon's first test flight

SpaceX has successfully launched an unmanned crew capsule named Crew Dragon into orbit around the Earth.

Shortly after liftoff, the rocket's main engine turned off and the first and second stages separated.

"It's been a long eight years", the Kennedy Space Center's director Bob Cabana, a former astronaut himself, said as SpaceX employees milled around the rocket.

Speaking to reporters after the launch, Musk said he was "emotionally exhausted" after the flight, which he said was "super stressful". On Sunday morning, Crew Dragon will rendezvous with the International Space Station and execute a docking maneuver. It marks the 35th such recovery by SpaceX.

"It's exciting to see a crewed vehicle, the SpaceX Dragon, up there on a Falcon 9 on pad 39A", said Cabana, who witnessed the last space shuttle flight return to Cape Canaveral on July 21, 2011.

The launch systems are aimed at ending U.S. reliance on Russian rockets for rides to the $100 billion orbital research laboratory, which flies about 250 miles (402 km) above Earth, at about $80 million per ticket. If all goes well, the capsule design will undergo a few more reviews and safety checks, and it could be ready to fly two NASA astronauts to the space station in July, based on the space agency's current timeline.

NASA hopes to test the technology in the summer with human astronauts aboard.

He said: "That is something we have to practise in preparation for crewed flight to make sure we're fast in the right spots, and have all the potential medical attention at the right time".

Although SpaceX has been flying a cargo-based version of the Dragon to the station since 2012, the new Dragon has been entirely remade for crew.

"As a country, we're looking forward to being one customer of many customers, in a robust commercial marketplace in low Earth orbit, so that we can drive down costs and increase access in ways that historically have not been possible", he said. NASA now pays $82 million per seat.

While NASA has continued to fly probes and robots into deep space, and has even landed on Mars, the inability to fly humans has remained an embarrassment for an agency that beat the Soviet Union in the Cold War space race to the moon. More safety checks are also in store. It will not be tested until April, in a mission similar to SpaceX's.

Hans Koenigsmann, Vice President of Mission Assurance at SpaceX said Ripley was vital for future manned flights.

In less than a decade, SpaceX has become a key partner for NASA, in addition to dominating the market for private satellite launches.

Its Falcon 9 rockets have resupplied the space station 15 times in seven years, though one of them blew up in 2015.