Dec. 8, 2010 at 11:38 AM ET
About nine minutes after the launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, ground controllers reported that a potential capsule-sized replacement for the space shuttle had reached orbit safely with nary a problem.
"Dragon is in orbit," SpaceX mission control announced.
The rise to orbit served as a test run for future resupply flights to the International Space Station. Before today's launch, SpaceX's millionaire founder, Elon Musk, observed that a successful ascent would demonstrate that the Dragon could reach the space station, even if it didn't later re-enter the atmosphere and make its scheduled splashdown in the Pacific.
The Falcon 9 and Dragon are being developed as a means to fill some of the roles now being taken on by the much-larger space shuttle. The shuttle fleet is due for retirement next year, 30 years after the first shuttle flew.
SpaceX says the 16-foot-tall Dragon is capable of carrying more than 3 tons of payload to the space station in each of its pressurized and unpressurized sections. The shuttle, in comparison, can carry 25 tons or more in its payload bay, depending on launch configuration.
Musk has said the really "risky bit" is still to come, when the Dragon is due to descend after making two or three orbits at an altitude of 186 miles (300 kilometers). Splashdown could come as early as 2:02 p.m. ET. If the thrusters don't work just right, or if the craft's heat shield fails, the Dragon could literally go down in flames. But even then, the SpaceX team would be able to chalk up today's flight as a "75 percent success," Musk told me.