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Elon Musk’s SpaceX ship blasts off with 2 US astronauts. Here’s what makes it special

Falcon 9, a rocket ship built by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX, blasted off with two Americans on Saturday, ushering in a new era in commercial space travel.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa’s) Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken rode skyward aboard a white-and-black, bullet-shaped Dragon capsule on top of the Falcon 9 rocket, lifting off at 3:22pm from the same launch pad used to send Apollo crews to the moon a half-century ago.

They slipped safely into orbit minutes later.

“Let’s light this candle,” Hurley said just before ignition, using the historic words used by Alan Shepard on America’s first human spaceflight, in 1961.

Here’s what makes the SpaceX liftoff special:

* SpaceX became the first private company to launch people into orbit, a feat achieved previously by only three governments: the US, Russia and China.

* The last time Nasa launched astronauts into space aboard a brand new vehicle was 40 years ago at the start of the space shuttle program.

* The milestone flight marked the first time that American astronauts have flown from US soil since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.

* The launch comes 18 years after Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies Corp with the ultimate goal of populating other planets.

* Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are scheduled to arrive Sunday at the International Space Station for a stay of up to four months. They will come home with a Right Stuff-style splashdown at sea, something the world hasn’t witnessed since the 1970s.

* The flight also ended a nine-year launch drought for Nasa. Ever since it retired the space shuttle in 2011, Nasa has relied on Russian spaceships launched from Kazakhstan to take US astronauts to and from the space station.

* The launch comes 18 years after Elon Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies Corp with the ultimate goal of populating other planets.

* The astronauts’ voyage, known as Demo-2, is the final major test of SpaceX’s human spaceflight system before Nasa certifies it to fly working missions to the space station.

* For Elon Musk, the launch represents another milestone for the reusable rockets his company pioneered to make spaceflight less costly and more frequent.

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