Washington (AFP)

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule safely docked at the international space station on Sunday with two NASA astronauts on board, a crucial milestone for this mission, which marks the return of American launches to the ISS after nine years of interruption.

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who took off aboard a Falcon 9 rocket the day before from Florida, are the first astronauts to reach the ISS, 400 km from Earth, using a vehicle from a private company.

The Crew Dragon capsule docked at the ISS at 2:16 p.m. GMT, a few minutes ahead of schedule, after approximately 19 hours of travel.

The airlock between Dragon and the space station must now be depressurized before the capsule hatch is opened. The two space veterans, former military pilots, will then find the current residents of the station, two Russians and an American.

"It has been an honor to be part of this nine-year effort since the last time an American vehicle docked at the international space station," said Doug Hurley, 53.

Since the end of the space shuttles in 2011, Russian rockets have been sending the Americans to the ISS.

NASA has commissioned SpaceX to develop a new space taxi, and if this mission - which could last until August - is certified safe, the Americans will no longer depend on the Russians for access to space.

For three billion dollars, granted since 2011 as part of a fixed price contract, SpaceX promised NASA six round trips to the ISS, with four astronauts on board.

- First stage -

SpaceX has already been delivering cargo to the ISS since 2012, but this is the first time that NASA has entrusted it with its most precious resource: its astronauts.

"Today's launch demonstrates that the future belongs to the private space industry," said Donald Trump, who witnessed the rocket's takeoff from the Kennedy Space Center in person on Saturday.

The American president applauded the founder of SpaceX, who was very moved at the conference following the launch. "I find it hard to speak, it's been 18 years that we've been working with this goal. I can't believe it happened," said Elon Musk.

For this visionary entrepreneur, obsessed with the red planet, this is "a first step in our journey to establish a civilization on Mars", and to make humanity a "multiplanetary species".

The ex-start-up has beaten Boeing, a group also tasked by NASA to send astronauts to the ISS in the future, but whose Starliner capsule missed an empty test flight last year .

The changing weather almost threatened to take off Falcon 9 for a second time on Saturday, when lightning risks had already forced its postponement on Wednesday.

The rocket built near Los Angeles finally took off without problem in a largely blue sky, at 3:22 p.m. (1922 GMT), under the eyes of tens of thousands of people installed along the beaches of the area.

The hypersonic ascent was broadcast live by cameras inside the Crew Dragon capsule, and once in orbit, the two astronauts offered a guided tour, making somersaults in weightlessness.

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