Millionaire's Private Space Capsule Splashes Down After Successful Maiden Voyage
The private spaceflight company SpaceX launches its first unmanned Dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on a Dec. 8, 2010 on a test flight using a Falcon 9 rocket in this webcast still.
Credit: SpaceX.

This story was updated at 2:33 p.m. ET.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. ? The first unmanned space capsule built by millionaire rocket maker Elon Musk blasted off on a maiden voyage today (Dec. 8), in a historic milestone for his private spaceflight company SpaceX and the commercial space industry.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the company's robotic Dragon space capsule, lifted off at 10:43 a.m. EST (1543 GMT) from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 40. The capsule's successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean more than three hours later made SpaceX the first commercial company to re-enter a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit.

Shortly after launch, at 10:52 a.m. EST (1552 GMT), Dragon jettisoned the Falcon 9's second stage and began circling Earth.

"Dragon is in orbit," a launch controller said.

"Great day here at SpaceX," SpaceX director of marketing Emily Shanklin said. "Looks like we had a great flight."

The successful liftoff occurred after an earlier launch attempt at 9:06 a.m. EST (1406 GMT) this morning was aborted just under three minutes before launch, due to a false computer alarm.

The mission was the first flight test of the Dragon capsule and the second launch of a Falcon 9 rocket. It lasted a little over 3 hours, ending with the Dragon spacecraft re-entering Earth's atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean 500 miles (nearly 805 kilometers) off the coast of Mexico. Shortly after splashdown, SpaceX officials reported that the operation had been a success. [INFOGRAPHIC: Inside Look at SpaceX's Dragon Capsule]

"This would represent an important milestone in the history of space, heralding the dawn of a new era where private companies can now bring back spacecraft from orbit," Musk told SPACE.com before launch. "Successful recovery of Dragon would also bode very well for future astronaut transport."

The Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies, was founded by Musk, who also co-founded the online payment system Paypal, in 2002. Musk is also the CEO of Tesla, an electric car company.

In the spectacular morning launch, the Falcon 9 rocket carried the Dragon space capsule on its ascent into low-Earth orbit. The capsule separated from the rocket's second stage and made two orbits of the Earth while demonstrating various operations, including telemetry, navigation and maneuvering abilities.

The launch was originally scheduled for Dec. 7, but was delayed 24 hours to give technicians time to investigate two cracks that were found on the second-stage engine nozzle extension of the Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX engineers worked overnight to trim the cracked section of the nozzle extension, and tests that were performed throughout the day Tuesday showed that the repairs had been successful.

Earlier this week, Musk told MSNBC that he predicts the chances of success for this test flight to be about 60 percent. With the success of Dragon's first test flight, SpaceX has become the very first commercial company to launch and re-enter a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit ? a significant milestone for the young but burgeoning private spaceflight industry.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets stand about 180 feet (nearly 55 meters) tall and are 12 feet (3.6 meters) wide, according to SpaceX descriptions. The Dragon capsule and its unpressurized trunk are just over 20 feet (6 meters) long and have an interior cabin that is just over 10 feet (3 meters) wide at its widest point.

The Dragon space capsules are named after the song Puff the Magic Dragon by the group Peter, Paul and Mary, because many critics considered it to be impossible, SpaceX officials have said. SpaceX's Falcon 9 and smaller Falcon 1 rockets are named after the Millennium Falcon, the fictional "Star Wars" spaceship of choice for the character Han Solo.

Today's test flight was also the first by any company under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which is designed to stimulate the development of private vehicles capable of carrying cargo and crew to the International Space Station.

As part of the COTS deal, NASA has provided SpaceX with $278 million for successful demonstration tests of a vehicle and hardware capable of ferrying cargo to the space station.

Separately, SpaceX has a fixed $1.6 billion contract with NASA to use its Dragon spacecraft for cargo delivery flights to the International Space Station, following the retirement of the agency's space shuttle fleet. SpaceX plans to fly its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule on at least 12 unmanned missions to deliver supplies to the space station through 2016.

NASA has also inked a $1.9 billion deal with the Virginia-based spaceflight company Orbital Sciences Corp. to provide eight cargo flights to the International Space Station using its unmanned Cygnus spacecraft and Taurus 2 rockets. The first flights of those craft are expected in 2011.

SpaceX will follow up this demonstration with a series of other test flights, each with increasingly more complex mission objectives. If the standards of the COTS program are met, SpaceX could begin carrying cargo to and from the space station as early as next year.

Eventually, SpaceX hopes to win a contract to one day ferry astronauts to and from station ? though the Dragon capsule has yet to be man-rated to carry human passengers into space.

You can follow SPACE.com Staff Writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Visit SPACE.com for complete coverage of SpaceX's debut Dragon spacecraft launch.