SpaceX crew onboard rocket ahead of landmark launch from Florida.

SpaceX, the private space exploration company of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, launched two Americans toward orbit from Florida in a mission that marks the first spaceflight of Nasa astronauts from US soil in nine years.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center at 8.22pm Irish time on Saturday, launching Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on a 19-hour journey on the company’s newly designed Crew Dragon capsule bound for the International Space Station.

The first launch attempt on Wednesday was called off with less than 17 minutes remaining on the countdown clock due to stormy weather around the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.

Nasa astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken on their way to the launch site at the Kennedy Space Center on Saturday. Photograph: John Raoux/AP Photo

Nasa astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken on their way to the launch site at the Kennedy Space Center on Saturday. Photograph: John Raoux/AP Photo

The launch pad was the same one used by Nasa’s final space shuttle flight, piloted by Mr Hurley, in 2011. Since then, Nasa astronauts have used Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to go into orbit.

For Mr Musk, the launch represents another milestone for the reusable rockets his company pioneered to make spaceflight less costly and frequent. And it marks the first time that commercially developed space vehicles – owned and operated by a private entity rather than Nasa – have carried Americans into orbit.

The last time Nasa launched astronauts into space on a new vehicle was 40 years ago at the start of the shuttle programme.

Karen Pence, US vice-president Mike Pence and US president Donald Trump watch the SpaceX launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty

Karen Pence, US vice-president Mike Pence and US president Donald Trump watch the SpaceX launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty

Trump visit

US president Donald Trump and vice-president Mike Pence visited the Kennedy Space Center three days ago for the first launch attempt.

Mr Trump and Mr Pence returned for the second attempt and watched from a rooftop along with officials and Republican politicians. The president described the event as "an inspiration for our country" and a "beautiful sight".

"I'm so proud of the people at Nasa, all the people that worked together, public and private," he told reporters.

Mr Musk, the South African-born high-tech entrepreneur who made his fortune in Silicon Valley, is also the chief executive of electric carmaker and battery manufacturer Tesla. He founded California-based SpaceX, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies, in 2002.

Mr Hurley (53) and Mr Behnken (49), Nasa employees under contract to fly with SpaceX, are expected to remain at the space station for several weeks, assisting a short-handed crew aboard the orbital laboratory.

Boeing, producing its own launch system in competition with SpaceX, is expected to fly its CST-100 Starliner vehicle with astronauts aboard for the first time next year. Nasa has awarded nearly $8 billion (€7.2 billion) to SpaceX and Boeing combined for development of their rival rockets. – Reuters

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