By Assistant managing editor
updated 5/22/2012 7:37:36 PM ET 2012-05-22T23:37:36

A private space capsule called Dragon soared into the predawn sky Tuesday, riding a pillar of flame like its beastly namesake on a history-making tripto the International Space Station.

The unmanned capsule, built by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), is the first non-governmental spacecraft to launch to the space station, ushering in a new era of partnership between the public and private spaceflight programs.

"I think this is an example of American entrepreneurship at its best," said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's commercial crew and cargo program, in a briefing before the launch. About 100 VIP guests were on hand to witness the launch, NASA officials said. 

Related: Private rocket launch vindicates commercial spaceflight model

The Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX launched its Dragon capsule at 3:44 a.m. EDT Tuesday from a pad here at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It blasted off atop SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, a 157-foot (48-meter) booster powered by nine Merlin rocket engines. The space station was flying 249 miles above the North Atlantic Ocean as the rocket lifted off, NASA officials said. [Launch Photos: SpaceX's Dragon Blasts Off for Space Station]

Private spaceship in orbit
The gumdrop-shaped capsule is 14.4 feet tall (4.4 meters) and 12 feet wide (3.7 m), and packed with 1,014 pounds (460 kilograms) of cargo for the space station, including 674 pounds (306 kg) of foodand supplies for the crew, as well as student-designed science experimentsand a laptop computer.

SpaceX Dragon spacecraft
Reuters
SpaceX Dragon spacecraft

The Falcon 9 rocket's second stage is also reportedly carrying ashes from 308 people, including actor James Doohan, who played Scotty on the 1960s television series "Star Trek," and Mercury program astronaut Gordon Cooper. The ashes were flown under a deal with the "memorial spaceflight" company Celestis, according to ABC News and Reuters. The ashes were in a section of the rocket that was jettisoned during the climb into space, The Associated Press reported.

The SpaceX launch vehicle is named after the Millennium Falcon of "Star Wars," while the capsule got its moniker from the Peter, Paul and Mary song, "Puff, the Magic Dragon."

Today marked only the second-ever launch of a Dragon capsule, and the third flight for the Falcon 9 rocket. It was the second attempt to launch the space station-bound test flight after a launch try Saturday was thwarted by a faulty rocket engine valve. Repairs were made over the weekend, and the SpaceX team counted down smoothly to the liftoff this morning.

"One thing that they are very good at is being able to work through launch abort and treat those problems and be prepared to go again in a very short time," Mike Horkachuck, NASA project executive for SpaceX, said Monday.

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Today's launch is the last planned test flight for SpaceX under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program intended to develop a private-sector replacement for the cargo-delivery services of the retired space shuttles. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract to fly at least 12 unmanned missions to the space station through 2015.

Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of boosting commercial access to space and, ultimately, aiming for deep-space exploration, including missions to Mars. The success of today's launch was never certain or assured, Musk had repeatedly said.

Today, the mission's uncertainty eased up a bit, he said.

"Falcon flew perfectly!!" Musk wrote in a Twitter post from Falcon 9's mission control room in Hawthorne. "Dragon in orbit, comm locked and solar arrays active!! Feels like a giant weight just came off my back."

Orbital catch up
The spacecraft is due to spend its first day on orbit catching up with the 240-mile high (390 km) space station, where it will rendezvous Thursday and perform a fly-by to within 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) to check its navigation systems. [Quiz: How Well Do You Know SpaceX's Dragon?]

On Friday, the capsule is slated to perform a series of maneuvers to approach the station, with crew members onboard the outpost issuing commands to Dragon. If the spacecraft passes a set of "go-no go" checks at Mission Control in Houston, NASA will approve the vehicle to approach the International Space Station. From inside, astronauts Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers will use the lab's robotic arm to grab Dragon and berth it to the station's Harmony node.

The hatches between the two spacecraft are due to be opened early Saturday, so the crew can enter Dragon and unpack its payload.

Dragon is due to spend about a week attached to the outpost. On May 31, the capsule will be packed with completed science experiments and other equipment, unberthed and sent back toward Earth. The vehicle is equipped with a heat shield to withstand the fires of re-entry, and is due to splash down and be recovered by ship in the Pacific Ocean.

Private spaceflight reality
Dragon is an unmanned version of a capsule ultimately intended to carry people as well.

Another company, Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., also has a NASA contract to deliver cargo to the space station, and plans to launch its first test flight later this year.

The program is part of a larger effort by NASA to outsource low-Earth orbit transportation to the private sector, allowing the space agency to begin work on a new spacecraft and heavy-lift rocket to visit asteroids, the moon and Mars.

Falcon rocket launches behind shuttle mockup
Robert Pearlman  /  collectSPACE.com
SpaceX's first space station-bound Dragon spacecraft, flying atop a Falcon 9 rocket, launches behind a high fidelity mockup of the space shuttle, NASA's previous means of delivering cargo to International Space Station. Liftoff occurred on May 22 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The plan has received criticism from some lawmakers and members of the public, who worry that commercial vehicles aren't as safe or reliable as NASA's in-house built spacecraft.

"It's really easyto criticize, and it's very difficult to solve a problem and actually do something," said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. "So I tend to focus on the business and getting our jobs done and not focus on those that want to criticize."

NASA officials and leaders of the commercial space sector say the time is right for space to transition from an exclusively government regime to an arena open to private companies.

"I kind of see that transition as being inevitable," said Phil McAlister, NASA's director of Commercial Spaceflight Development. "I believe it is going to happen at some point. If it's not today and this mission falls short of expectations, it is going to happen eventually."

You can follow Space.com Assistant Managing Editor Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz.Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcomand on Facebook.

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Video: SpaceX launches

Explainer: Ten high-profile players in the commercial space race

  • Image: Obama at KSC
    Jewel Samad  /  AFP — Getty Images file
    US President Barack Obama walks past a main engine of a shuttle as he arrives to speak on the new course the administration is charting for NASA and the future of US leadership in human space flight at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 15, 2010.

    When NASA's space shuttle fleet retires in 2011, the space agency will have to rely on Russian spacecraft and the private sector to taxi cargo and humans to and from the International Space Station, even as it turns its focus to the technologies required to send humans beyond low-Earth orbit.

    President Barack Obama views the policy as a boost to the nascent commercial spaceflight industry, where competition is already heating up to supply the taxi services. Some companies are also talking about offering out-of-this-world rides for researchers as well as tourists with deep pockets and a serious case of star lust. Click ahead to check out 10 of the top players in the race to commercialize space.

  • Space Exploration Technologies

    Image: Falcon 9 launch
    CollectSpace.com
    SpaceX's Falcon 9 rises from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Friday, sending a test capsule into orbit.

    PayPal co-founder Elon Musk has already signed up NASA as a marquee account for his high-flying venture, Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX. The government has a $1.6 billion contract with the Hawthorne, Calif., company to provide unmanned cargo deliveries to the International Space Station starting in 2011 with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule.

    This image shows the successful test launch of the Falcon 9 rocket on June 4. The rocket will eventually carry the Dragon to orbit. If all goes according to plan, astronauts may get a lift as well, starting in 2013. SpaceX has also secured contracts to launch next-generation satellites for the telecommunications company Iridium.

  • Orbital Sciences

    Image: Orbital Sciences
    Orbital Sciences

    Another NASA contract — this one worth a reported $1.9 billion — is in the bag at Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, which is planning to supply the International Space Station with its unmanned Cygnus spacecraft, shown here in an artist’s rendering. A newly-developed Taurus 2 rocket will ferry the cargo ship to space. If the opportunity presents itself, the company may advance plans to ferry humans to orbit as well.

  • Boeing

    Image: Space capsule
    Boeing
    Boeing is hard at work on the research and development of a new space capsule aimed at flying people to the International Space Station.

    Boeing, the aerospace giant, has unveiled plans to flesh out designs and build a new capsule-based spaceship called the CST-100, which will take cargo and passengers to the International Space Station. The development push comes thanks to an $18 million NASA grant.

    The Apollo-like capsule will carry a crew of seven and be designed to launch on a variety of rockets, including the Atlas and Delta rockets operated by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture known as the United Launch Alliance, as well as SpaceX's Falcon. Extra seats may be made available for paying passengers through a marketing arrangement with Space Adventures.

  • Masten Space Systems

    X Prize Foundation via AP
    This photo shows the Masten Space System rocket XA-0.1B, also called "Xombie" launching from the pad, traveling 50 meters above the ground at the Mojave Air & Space Port. Mojave, CA on Oct. 7, 2009.

    While big NASA contracts have already gone to big names in the commercial space industry, lesser-known Masten Space Systems is in the race to pick up taxi fares to the International Space Station as well.

    The company won a $1 million lunar challenge prize with the Xoie spacecraft shown here. It is now working on a next-generation vehicle based on the vertical-takeoff-and-landing design to ferry cargo. NASA funding will go toward four test flights of the spacecraft, called Xaero.

  • Sierra Nevada Corporation

    Image: Sierra Nevada Corporation
    Lewis Geyer  /  Times-call

    The reusable Dream Chaser space plane, under development by Sierra Nevada Corp. subsidiary SpaceDev , has a look and feel reminiscent of a mini-space shuttle. Like NASA spacecraft, a rocket lifts the space plane up — and at the end of its mission, the plane lands on a runway.

    In fact, the transportation system is based on NASA technology, and the company recently received $20 million from the space agency to continue the plane's development. A full-scale mockup of the plane is shown in this file photo from its unveiling in 2006.

  • Bigelow Aerospace

    Image: Bigelow Aerospace
    Bigelow Aerospace

    Entrepreneur Robert Bigelow padded his bank account by building a hotel chain, Budget Suites of America. His latest pioneering venture, Bigelow Aerospace, is aimed at building affordable habitats in space.

    Two prototype inflatable capsules have already been launched, and plans are in the works to put the more expansive Sundancer space station, shown here in an artist's conception, in orbit by 2015.

    In this case, the overnight guests may include national space agencies as well as private-sector researchers and thrill-seeking tourists. Other players in the commercial space sector would taxi guests to and from the puffy digs.

  • Blue Origin

    Image: Blue Origin
    Blue Origin

    Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who amassed a fortune selling the printed word online, has few words to share about Blue Origin, his commercial space venture to fly a vertical launch and landing rocket to suborbital space.

    This much is known: A demonstration vehicle called Goddard, shown here in a file photo, successfully took off and landed in 2006 from the company's private spaceport in west Texas. It's not yet known when the company's commercial vehicle will be ready for a public unveiling.

    A bit more info: NASA recently awarded the company $3.7 million of a $50 million pie that it says is for the "development of system concepts, key technologies, and capabilities that could ultimately be used in commercial crew human space transportation systems." Blue Origin is concentrating on the development of a launch escape system that could push a NASA capsule to safety in case of emergency.

  • Virgin Galactic

    Virgin Galactic
    The Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceliner SpaceShipTwo makes its first crewed flight on July 15, 2010 over the Mojave Desert in California.

    Space enthusiasts with $200,000 to burn can book a ticket to ride to outer space with Virgin Galactic on the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. The plane, meant for tourism as well as research, will haul six passengers and two pilots on suborbital flights that pop into outer space for a few minutes before returning to Earth.

    The aircraft was designed by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and colleagues at Scaled Composites. Test flights of the spacecraft, which launches from the WhiteKnightTwo mothership, are under way. Ticketholders will get their opportunity to ride once all systems are a go.

  • Armadillo Aerospace

    Image: Armadillo future spacecraft
    Armadillo Aerospace

    Would-be space tourists who balk at the price tag for a ride on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo might consider another option in the offing: $102,000 for a seat on Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace's vertical takeoff and landing vehicle.

    The spacecraft, shown in this artist's conception, will rocket passengers into outer space for about five minutes of weightlessness and 360-degree views. Tickets can be booked through Space Adventures, the same company that has arranged rides to the International Space Station for the super-wealthy.

  • XCOR Aerospace

    Image: XCOR Aerospace
    XCOR Aerospace

    Yet another option for the space tourist is a $95,000 trip up to the inky blackness at the edge of space in XCOR's Lynx rocketship. The spacecraft, which has room for just one pilot and one passenger riding shotgun, takes off horizontally from a runway and climbs steeply to 200,000 feet, where views abound of planet Earth and the stars. Advance reservations for the hour-long trip can be booked through space tourism company RocketShipTours. An artist's rendering of the rocketship is seen here.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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