Thisstory was updated at 11:53 p.m. EDT.
After threeconsecutive failures, a private spaceflight firm?s Falcon 1 rocket successfullyblasted into space late Sunday to become the first privately built liquid-fueled booster toreach orbit.
The two-stageFalcon 1 rocket built by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) liftedoff at about 7:15 p.m. EDT (2315 GMT) from the U.S. Army?s Ronald ReaganBallistic Defense Test Site on the Kwajalein Atoll in the about 2,500 miles (4,023km) southwest of Hawaii. The successful space shot came less than a month afteran engine timing error during stage separation doomed SpaceX?sthird Falcon 1 test.
?As thesaying goes, the fourth time?s the charm,? SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told an elatedgroup of 500 employees at his Hawthorne, Calif.-based headquarters. ?This isone of the best days of my life.?
Aco-founder of the electronic payment service PayPal, Musk founded SpaceX in2002 to offer low-cost commercial space launches beginning with the Falcon 1.
?This isreally just the first step for SpaceX,? Musk said after the launch. ?We?veshown that we can get to orbit, we?ve shown that we don?t have any design errors.?
SpaceX?sfirst three attempts to launch a Falcon 1 rocket ended in failure. The firsttry ended with a fuelleak and fire just after launch in March 2006. A second attempt nearlyreached orbit, but the rocket?s second stage engine shut down early 180 miles(289 km) above Earth. On Aug. 2, an engine timing issue caused the rocket?sfirst stage to separate, and then collide with the second stage, dooming theattempted launch.
But for thefourth Falcon 1 test, all appeared to go as planned, with cheers erupting fromSpaceX employees at each flight milestone that could be heard during the launchbroadcast. After restarting its second stage engine, the Falcon 1 rocketsuccessfully reached its intended orbit that ranged from 310 to 434 miles (500-700km).
?The teamis elated and ecstatic,? Musk told reporters after the launch. ?It?s just,people feel vindicated.?
The Falcon1 rocket is the first in a planned family of Falcon boosters under developmentby SpaceX. Its engines burn liquid oxygen and kerosene, and the first stage is intendedto splash down in the Pacific Ocean to be recovered for reuse, but better heatshielding is needed before that is perfected, Musk said.
The boosterstands 68 feet tall (21 meters) tall and is designed to haul payloads of up toabout 1,256 pounds (570 kg) to low-Earth orbit. For Sunday night?s launch, itcarried a simple, 364-pound (165-kg) mass simulator that mimicked an actualsatellite.
Musk saidhis team nicknamed the mock satellite Ratsat — it?s emblazoned with a rat logo —and it should stay in orbit between five and 10 years.
?This wasthe smoothest launch countdown of all,? Musk said. ?It just shows the team isgetting more and more practice at this.?
SpaceXplans to launch the fifth Falcon 1 rocket in early 2009 to launch a Malaysiansatellite and several piggyback payloads into orbit.
The rocketcosts about $8 million per flight, Musk said, adding that rates for future flightscould go down if first stage reusability is perfected. But the cost to developand test the booster, including all three failed launches, came in at around$100 million, he added.
?It?s greatto have this giant monkey off my back,? said Musk, adding that he serves as theFalcon 1?s chief designer in addition to his role as CEO.
SpaceX isalso developing the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon orbital spacecraft in the hopesof providing cargo launch services to the International Space Station for NASA.Musk told his employees that future plans include designs for human spaceflightas well. By the year?s end, its new larger rocket — theFalcon 9 — is due to be delivered to its launch site in Cape Canaveral,Fla., for a planned summer 2009 test, Musk said.
?We lookforward to a lot of Falcon 1 launches and a lot of Falcon 9 launches,? Musksaid.
But fornow, Musk told his employees that celebration was in order to mark the firm?sfirst orbital success after three false starts and six years of work.
?I?m goingto have a really great party tonight, I don?t know about you guys!? Musk toldhis SpaceX team. ?Congratulations everyone, this is your hard work that madethis happen.?
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