NASA's "Launch America" drew much of the nation in.
On Saturday (May 30), SpaceX launched its first-ever crewed mission, a test flight called Demo-2 that sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS).
The liftoff was the first orbital crewed launch to depart from American soil since NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011. And a record number of people tuned in to watch the milestone online, agency officials said.
"We’re still collecting the data, but some of our metrics are saying that peak viewership for the joint NASA-SpaceX launch broadcast across all of our platforms was at least 10.3 million concurrent viewers — the most-watched event we’ve ever tracked," NASA Associate Administrator for Communications Bettina Inclán said during a news conference on Sunday (May 31), shortly after Behnken and Hurley's Crew Dragon capsule arrived at the ISS.
To be clear: The record Demo-2 just broke is for internet traffic, not viewership of all kinds. For example, it's estimated that about 600 million people — one-sixth the global population at the time — watched the Apollo 11 moon landing on TV on July 20, 1969.
Several high-ranking American officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, have drawn parallels between the famed Apollo missions and Demo-2, noting that both took place in times of extreme turmoil and division in the United States.
Apollo's backdrop included protests against the Vietnam War and widespread civil-rights abuses. And today the nation is beset by the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest stemming from the tragic May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
The Saturn V rockets that launched the Apollo missions "rose above the tumult and the clamor of their times. They were a symbol of national strength and unity," Pence said on Saturday shortly after Demo-2's liftoff. "I believe with all my heart that millions of Americans today will find the same inspiration and unity of purpose that we found in those days in the 1960s."
SpaceX holds a $2.6 billion contract to conduct six operational crewed flights to the orbiting lab for NASA. If Demo-2 is successful all the way through, Elon Musk's company will be clear to start conducting those contracted missions.
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Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.