"Today represents a new era in space flight" said Jim Bridenstine, head of the USA space agency who sees the launch as a step toward the privatization of low Earth orbit. It's gone through many iterations down the years and now has an extensive flight history.
"The next big leap in a new chapter of US human spaceflight systems has left the pad", NASA wrote on Twitter.
In a risky experiment, NASA years ago chose to outsource transportation to what's known as low Earth orbit to the private sector. SpaceX has been developing Crew Dragon under a $2.6 billion NASA commercial-crew contract, which the agency awarded in 2014. "But we also want to make sure we have our own capability to get back and forth to the International Space Station".
The rocket blasted off without incident at 2:49 am (0749 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, lighting up Florida's coastline. "To be frank, I'm a little emotionally exhausted", he said. "But it worked - so far".
It's been a momentous Saturday for SpaceX, and for the future of crewed voyages into space. The agency's influence shapes various aspects of third-party planning, including design, safety, and funding, under its Commercial Crew Program.
The Crew Dragon space capsule, launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, is unmanned but it carries an astronaut test dummy named Ripley that is outfitted with numerous sensors to collect data from the flight.
"Early on, our goal was human spaceflight", he said. It will not be tested until April, in a mission similar to SpaceX's.
Bridenstine said he's confident that astronauts will soar on a Dragon or Starliner - or both - by year's end. Many officials have warned that since the program is still in the test phase the schedules are likely to slip, perhaps even significantly.
The uncrewed flight, or Demo-1 mission, will provide SpaceX the chance to prove its spacecraft is safe, reliable and ready to carry live astronauts.
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There was no human crew on board, but the capsule was carrying a mannequin (named Ripley) so SpaceX can see if the capsule is safe enough for astronaut transport. Shortly after liftoff, Musk asked them, "How do you feel about flying on it?" The response was positive.
Though the launch was a success, SpaceX still has a giant hurdle to leap before the demonstration mission is complete.
The plan calls for the capsule to dock with the International Space Station on Sunday morning.
It docked autonomously, instead of relying on the station's robot arm for help.
"We're only partway through the mission", Musk said.
A concern over Dragon's docking abort procedures was raised by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, one of NASA's worldwide partners in the ISS program.
NASA astronaut Eric Boe (L) and Norm Knight, deputy director of flight operations at NASA's Johnson Space Center, watch the launch.
"The ISS still has three people onboard so this mission coming up to the ISS for the first time has to work; it has to work".
Then it is scheduled to remain attached for five days until March 8, when it will undock from the ISS and return to Earth. The most hard part may come at the very end of the test flight, when the capsule comes barreling back into Earth's atmosphere.