Washington (AFP)

A SpaceX rocket will launch on Saturday three NASA astronauts and a Japanese astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS), a first six-month "operational" mission that materializes the resumption of manned flights from the United States last May, after nine years of interruption and dependence on Russia.

NASA officially certified the Crew Dragon capsule developed by SpaceX for the transport of its astronauts in regular flights on Tuesday, deeming it safe.

SpaceX, a company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, had previously successfully completed a demonstration mission from May to August, two astronauts having been transported to the ISS then brought back to Earth without incident.

"I am extremely proud to say that we are resuming the regular manned space flights launched from American territory, with a rocket and an American spacecraft," said NASA chief Jim Bridenstine.

The rocket will take off on Saturday at 7:49 p.m. (00:49 GMT Saturday) from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The crew is made up of Americans Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Japanese Soichi Noguchi.

The weather forecast is favorable.

Docking to the ISS is scheduled for eight and a half hours later, Sunday at 09:20 GMT.

With this mission, the Dragon capsules will become NASA's favorite taxi, until Boeing's capsule, Starliner, which suffered significant problems during testing, is ready, not until next year.

It establishes SpaceX as one of the most reliable providers of the American space agency.

SpaceX has already been operating space station refueling flights with the cargo version of Dragon since 2012.

“In the next 15 months, we will launch seven human and cargo Dragon missions for NASA,” said Benji Reed, head of human spaceflight at SpaceX, during a conference call Tuesday.

From December, "every time we launch a Dragon, there will be two Dragons in space simultaneously, for extended periods," he said.

The next manned mission, scheduled for the end of March 2021, will take European Thomas Pesquet, with two Americans and another Japanese.

© 2020 AFP