updated 12/8/2010 7:48:03 PM ET 2010-12-09T00:48:03

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. It's a pretty good day to be Elon Musk.

The chief executive of SpaceX had plenty to celebrate today (Dec. 8), after the milestone first test flight of the private spaceflight company's unmanned Dragon space capsule.

"It's just mind-blowingly awesome," Musk said in a news briefing after the spacecraft had returned from orbit. "It's hard to be articulate when your mind's blown but in a very good way."

The accomplishment makes SpaceX the first commercial company ever to launch and re-enter a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit. To date, only six nations or governmental agencies have performed such a feat: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India and the European Space Agency. [ Photos of the Dragon spacecraft flight ]

"I can't tell you how excited I am," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told Space News, a partner, at an event at NASA headquarters in Washington today. "The important thing for everybody to understand is that this is the first time that something other than a nation has done ascent, on-orbit and intact recovery."

SpaceX's successful mission is also a landmark for the commercial spaceflight industry as a whole. It was the first test flight under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which is designed to foster the development of private vehicles capable of carrying cargo and crew to the International Space Station.

SpaceX plans to use its unmanned Dragon spacecraft as the cargo truck to deliver supplies to the International Space Station under a $1.6 billion deal with NASA. That contract calls for 12 SpaceX Dragon flights to the space station through 2016. NASA has also struck a $1.9 billion deal with another company, Orbital Sciences of Virginia, for eight cargo flights using its private spacecraft and rockets.

"What a great day for SpaceX, what a great day for NASA, and what a historic day for commercial spaceflight," said Alan Lindenmoyer, program manager of NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program. "This is an indication that this experiment is working. This public-private partnership has certainly shown to be successful today."

SpaceX's first operational Dragon spacecraft launched aboard the company's Falcon 9 rocket at 10:43 a.m. EST (1543 GMT) from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 40.

The capsule made two orbits of the Earth at speeds greater than 17,000 mph (over 27,300 kilometers per hour), according to SpaceX officials. It then re-entered the Earth's atmosphere and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean shortly after 2 p.m. EST (1900 GMT). The entire mission lasted almost 3 hours and 20 minutes.

"This has really been better than I expected," Musk said. "Just looking at all the mission data it's almost too good. For a rocket to work, and a spacecraft to work they're both incredibly complex devices. So much can go wrong but, it all went right. I'm sort of in semi-shock."

In addition to founding Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX in 2002, Musk co-founded the Internet payment service Paypal, and is CEO of the Tesla electric car company.

The smooth operation of this demonstration flight could help Musk, and other potential commercial providers, quiet some of the critics of commercial spaceflight. After today's success, Musk said that doubting the capability of the private space industry "wouldn't make sense. It would be like fighting on the wrong side of yesterday's war."

Yet amid the celebration, SpaceX already has its eye on the next round of test flights in the COTS program.

"In our schedules with NASA, it said that if this flight went well, it would allow us to go straight to the space station in the next one," Musk said. "We have to carefully examine the data from this mission, but I'm optimistic that the next flight will be to the space station."

"We're beyond the 'if' for 'if it's possible,'" said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX. "Now we can move forward and get stuff done."

Space News Staff Writer Amy Svitak contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

You can follow Staff Writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow.

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