Dec. 8, 2010 at 10:43 AM ET
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket blazed spaceward today, sending up a commercially developed orbital spaceship for its first true test. If the Dragon capsule comes back down safely, it will mark a new milestone for private-sector spaceflight.
The two-stage Falcon 9 left its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 10:43 a.m. ET, after an initial attempt was aborted due to a false alarm that was transmitted in the computerized telemetry. SpaceX tracked down the problem and proceeded with the launch about an hour and a half later. The rapid turnaround is a hallmark of the eight-year-old, California-based company.
The Falcon/Dragon system is designed to service the International Space Station after next year's expected retirement of the space shuttle fleet. If the test program laid out by NASA and SpaceX sticks to the most optimistic schedule, Dragons could start carrying up cargo sometime next year. And if NASA gives the go-ahead, the Dragon could be used to ferry astronauts back and forth as well.
SpaceX is receiving $278 million from NASA to develop the launch system, and the company already has received a $1.6 billion contract for station resupply flights through 2016. Another company, Virginia-based Orbital Science Corp., is getting similar support from NASA for spaceship development, but its Taurus/Cygnus system has not yet undergone flight tests.
The Dragon is due to make two or three orbits and splash back down in the Pacific off the California coast. If today's test mission is successful, SpaceX will become the first commercial company to launch a spacecraft and have it come back from Earth orbit safely.
SpaceX's millionaire founder, Elon Musk, has gauged the chances of complete success at 60 percent. He emphasized that today's mission was a test flight, and that less-than-complete success would by no means spell failure. Two more Dragon demonstration flights are currently planned over the next year.
"When Dragon returns, whether on this mission or a future one, it will herald the dawn of an incredibly exciting new era in space travel," Musk said in a steatement. "This will be the first new American human-capable spacecraft to travel to orbit and back since the space shuttle took flight three decades ago."
Musk said success would show "that it is possible to return to the fast pace of progress that took place during the Apollo era, but using only a tiny fraction of the resources."