Commercial supply ship rockets toward space station
Published Tuesday, May 22, 2012 12:02PM EDT
A supply ship that lifted off from Cape Canaveral on Tuesday morning wasn't going where no man had gone before.
In fact it was unmanned, and was destined for the oft-visited International Space Station. But the spacecraft did cross a new frontier by becoming the first privately launched vessel to successfully blast off to the space station.
"I think what this mission does is it heralds the dawn of a new era of space exploration, one where there is a significant commercial, private space element," said Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, at a NASA news conference following the lift-off.
The Falcon 9 rocket rose from the Cape Canaveral launch site carrying a capsule called Dragon, which is packed with 1,000 pounds of supplies destined for the space station and the six astronauts currently on board.
The rocket is on a timeline to approach the space station on Thursday, when it will begin test manoeuvres before mating with the station on Friday.
It reached orbit nine minutes into the flight, causing SpaceX flight controllers to erupt in cheers.
The launch was first attempted on Saturday, but was aborted with less than one second remaining in the countdown when computer sensors detected a bad engine valve.
That was replaced in advance of the successful launch Tuesday, and this time there were no snags.
"Every launch into space is a thrilling event, but this one is especially exciting," said John Holdren, U.S. President Barack Obama's chief science adviser. "This expanded role for the private sector will free up more of NASA's resources to do what NASA does best -- tackle the most demanding technological challenges in space, including those of human space flight beyond low Earth orbit."
NASA is looking to the private sector to take over resupply services to the International Space Station. Since the shuttle program was aborted, NASA has no spacecraft capable of making the trips and has been relying on Russian Soyuz rockets to transport American astronauts and supplies.
Several U.S. companies have been vying for contracts, but SpaceX may have taken the lead with its successful launch Tuesday.
In late 2010, SpaceX successfully launched a spacecraft into orbit, and retrieved it, becoming the first private company to do so and paving the way for Tuesday's mission.
The Falcon 9 is scheduled to remain at the space station for a week before returning to Earth with experiments and equipment. None of the other cargo ships currently in operation can safely return, but are designed to burn up on re-entry to the atmosphere.
Speaking at the Tuesday news conference, Musk compared the new role of the private sector in space to the opening up of the Internet to private companies in the mid-1990s.
"I think we're at a similar inflection point for space. I think, I hope and I believe this mission will be historic in marking that turning point towards a rapid advancement in space transportation technology," Musk said via video conference.
Musk, the CEO and chief designer for SpaceX, is the co-creator of PayPal and runs the Tesla electric car company.
The eventual goal is to create a spacecraft that can carry astronauts to space. That could become a reality within three or four years, SpaceX says.
Ahead of the Tuesday launch, SpaceX and NASA officials stressed it was a demonstration flight and that even if something went wrong, much could be learned.
"Whatever happens today, we could not have done it without @NASA, but errors are ours alone and me most of all," Musk said via Twitter.
Two more Dragon supply missions are scheduled for this year.