Falcon 9 private rocket lifts off for International Space Station

 

A commercial rocket has blasted off from the US with a load of supplies for the International Space Station.

The SpaceX company's Falcon 9 rocket took flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 3.44am local time today, launching a new era of spaceflight.

It was carrying a capsule named Dragon that is packed with 1,000lb (454kg) of space station provisions.

It is the first time a private business has launched a vessel to the space station. Until now it has been something only major governments have done.

The real test will come on Thursday when the Dragon gets close to the space station. It will undergo practice manoeuvres from more than a mile (1.6km) out. If all goes well, docking will take place on Friday.

Nasa and SpaceX have stressed that this is a demonstration flight.

SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, hailed the launch.

He said on Twitter: "Falcon flew perfectly!! Dragon in orbit ... Feels like a giant weight just came off my back."

The White House quickly offered congratulations. John Holdren, president Barack Obama's chief science adviser, said: "Every launch into space is a thrilling event, but this one is especially exciting.

"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."

Launch controllers applauded when the Dragon reached orbit nine minutes into the flight, then embraced each other once the solar panels on the spacecraft popped open. Many of the SpaceX controllers wore untucked T-shirts and jeans or even shorts, a stark contrast to Nasa's suit-and-tie shuttle team.

This time, the Falcon's nine engines kept firing all the way through lift-off. On Saturday, flight computers aborted the launch with half a second remaining in the countdown, and a bad engine valve was replaced.

Nasa administrator Charles Bolden said: "The significance of this day cannot be overstated.

"It's a great day for America. It's actually a great day for the world because there are people who thought that we had gone away, and today says, 'No, we're not going away at all'."

Mr Musk will preside over the operation from the company's Mission Control in Hawthorne, California, where he monitored the lift-off.

The space station was zooming over the North Atlantic, just east of Newfoundland, when the Falcon took flight.

Nasa is looking to the private sector to take over orbital trips in this post-shuttle period, and several US companies are vying for the opportunity. The goal is to get American astronauts launching again from US soil. SpaceX officials say that could happen in as little as three years.

Until their retirement last summer, Nasa's shuttles provided the bulk of space station equipment and even the occasional crew member. American astronauts are stuck riding Russian rockets to orbit until SpaceX or one of its competitors takes over the job. Russia also is making periodic cargo hauls, along with Europe and Japan.

Mr Musk, a co-creator of PayPal, founded SpaceX a decade ago. He has poured millions of his own money into the company, and Nasa has contributed 381 million dollars as seed money. In all, the company has spent more than a billion dollars on the effort.

Everyone, it seemed, was rooting for a successful flight - even Mr Musk's rivals.

Mark Sirangelo, chairman of Sierra Nevada's Space Systems, which is developing a mini-shuttle to carry space station crews in another few years, said: "The shuttle may be retired, but the American dream of space exploration is alive and well."

The six space station astronauts were especially enthusiastic; the crew beamed down a picture on the eve of the launch, showing the two who will use a robot arm to snare the Dragon.

In December 2010, SpaceX became the first private company to launch a spacecraft into orbit and retrieve it. That test flight of a Dragon capsule paved the way for this mission, which also is meant to culminate with a splashdown of the capsule in the Pacific.

This newest capsule is supposed to remain at the space station for a week before bringing back experiments and equipment. None of the other types of current cargo ships can return safely; they burn up on the way down.

Mr Musk, 40, is the chief executive officer and chief designer for SpaceX. He also runs Tesla Motors, his electric car company.

Hitching a ride into space, aboard the second stage of the rocket, were the ashes of more than 300 people, including Star Trek actor James Doohan, better known as Scotty.

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