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New Private Rocket Soars Into Space on First Flight

The commercially backed Falcon 9 lifts off from Cape Canaveral.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifts off on its maiden flight from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 4, 2010.
(Image: © collectSPACE.com)

This story was updated at 5:48 p.m. EDT.

The brand new commercial Falcon 9 rocket soared into orbitfrom Florida on its maiden flight Friday, the first test for a new era ofprivate vehicles that could one day send cargo ? and possibly astronauts ? intospace.

The Falcon9 rocket, built by private company Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX),blasted off at 2:45 p.m. EDT (1845 GMT) from its seaside launch pad at Cape CanaveralAir Force Station in Florida.

"We got our Falcon 9 rocket to orbit," saidSpaceX's jubilant millionaire CEO Elon Musk, who co-founded the PayPalonline payment service before launching his rocket company. "It achieved anear bull's eye."

The Falcon 9 rocket traveled eastward off the pad to orbitabout 155 miles (250 km) above Earth. A big SpaceX party is expected tonight inFlorida to celebrate the rocket's success, Musk said. [Photos: Falcon 9 Rocket's 1st Launch.]

How will they celebrate?

"I think with a lot of margaritas," said Musk, whofounded the Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX in 2002.

Falcon 9's first flight

The trip to orbit appeared to progress largely as expected,though a video camera attached to the Falcon 9 showed a slight roll on theascent to space.

Musk said the roll, while not expected, had no impact to thesuccessful launch.

An earlier launch attempt today at 1:30 p.m. EDT (1730 GMT)was aborted when a last minute igniter glitch triggered a safety system to shutdown the launch. Musk said that after analyzing the glitch, the safetyparameter was reset and the rocket cleared to launch.

Before that, the launch was delayed past an initial 11 a.m.EDT (1500 GMT) target time a blocked signal from the rocket's telemetry system,which enables the launch team to track the vehicle from afar.

After that issue was resolved, a report came from the U.S. Air Force that a boat had strayed into thesafety range on the Atlantic Ocean over which the Falcon 9 rocket would flyduring its trip to space. The launch had to wait until the boat was clearedbefore proceeding.

Finally, SpaceX recycled the launch countdown and succeededlaunching on its second try, when all systems appeared to function as designedfor a smooth first blastoff of the untried rocket.

"It?s a huge milestone achievement for SpaceX as acompany, because they?ve invested a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot ofengineering, and to get to an actual flight test is definitely an impressiveachievement," said Brett Alexander, president of the CommercialSpaceflight Federation, a private industry group.

More flights ahead

Musk said SpaceX's second Falcon 9 rocket is nearly completeand could fly by the end of summer. That mission is expected to carry an actualDragon spacecraft, not just a mock-up, to demonstrate spacecraft separation,orbital maneuvers and re-entry.

The Falcon 9 rocket already has a $1.6 billion contract withNASA to haul cargo to the International Space Station, and may one day carryastronauts as well. Today's successful launch adds fuel to the hopes that therocket will be the first non-government spaceshipto carry people to orbit.

The 178-foot (54-meter) tall liquid-fueled booster flew amock-up of the company's Dragon capsule, which isplanned to carry cargo, and eventually crew, to space.

This SPACE.comgraphic shows how the Falcon 9 rocket compares with NASA's shuttles andother spacecraft.

SpaceX had hoped to recover the first stage of the rocket,which fell into the Atlantic Ocean after launch and was expected to be buoyedby parachutes on its descent. But the rocket segment broke apart as it fell toEarth.

"We are recovering parts of the first stage," Musksaid. SpaceX had hoped to be able to reuse the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage,but the company's business plan does not hinge on reusability, he added.

Rise of private spaceflight

This successful trial flight will likely provide a boon toPresident Barack Obama's plan to shift responsibility for ferrying astronautsto the International Space Station to the commercialspace sector after the space shuttles retire this year. The Presidentproposed cancelling NASA's existing Constellation plan to build a shuttlereplacement.

"If [the test launch] is successful I think it'ssymbolically the new age, because it?s the first time to orbit by a vehiclebeing built entirely by a private corporation," space policy expert RogerHandberg, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida, saidbefore the flight. "It is a game changer in that sense. It makes the commercialspace stuff finally credible."

The launch could help ease doubts of some lawmakers thatprivate space companies are up to the task.

"What people have been saying in Congress is thecommercial sector can't do it," Handberg told SPACE.com. "I think inthe larger congressional community there will be less willingness to say, 'Ohyeah, we need to keep the shuttle flying, keep Constellation going.' I thinkthey?ll be more willing to back the President."

Still some doubts

But some doubt that skeptics will be persuaded by thesuccessful launch.

"If it?s a success I don?t expect critics of theadministration's plan to say anything positive," Alexander said onThursday. "They?ll just say, 'It's only a test.'"

While the achievement is significant for SpaceX, he said,the whole future of the commercial space industry is not riding on the successor failure of this one trial. SpaceX itself agreed.

"Tomorrow's launch should not be a verdict on theviability of commercial space," Musk said Thursday. "Commercial spaceis the only way forward," he said, because of the limited budget ofgovernmental space programs.

Ultimately, SpaceX plans to reuse most elements of their spacecraftto cut down costs and make space affordable for more civilians to travel beyondEarth.

"Unless we can make dramatic improvements to the costand reliability of space transport and make it closer to air transport, it willonly ever be a small number of launches that take place every year at extremeexpense," Musk said.

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