Obama Space Plan 'Vindicated' by Private Rocket Launch, Builder Says
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifts off on its maiden flight from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 4, 2010.
Credit: collectSPACE.com

The successful liftoff of a new private rocket helps vindicate President Barack Obama's plan to rely on commercial spaceships to carry cargo and possibly astronauts to orbit, the rocket's millionaire owner said.

Commercial firm Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) blasted off its first Falcon 9 rocket Friday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

"I think this bodes very well for the Obama plan," SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said after the launch. "It really helps vindicate the approach he's taking."

It also helps prove the approach of the upstart rocket company, which aims to make space travel cheaper and more accessible to everyone, he said.

"This has really been a fantastic day," said Musk, who earned millions by co-founding the PayPal online payment service before starting SpaceX. "Obviously it's been one of the best days of my life."

SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to use Falcon 9 to carry cargo to the International Space Station after the space shuttles retire. President Obama has proposed cancelling NASA's existing Constellation program to design a replacement for the shuttle. Instead, his plan depends on eventually transferring responsibility for transporting crews to the commercial sector as well.

NASA also has a $1.9 billion contract with SpaceX rival Orbital Sciences of Virginia for space station cargo flights.

"Space X's accomplishment is an important milestone in the commercial transportation effort and puts the company a step closer to providing cargo services to the International Space Station," NASA administrator Charlie Bolden said in a statement after the launch. "This launch of the Falcon 9 gives us even more confidence that a resupply vehicle will be available after the space shuttle fleet is retired."

Even the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy chimed in on Twitter.

"Congratulations is in order for SpaceX," representatives wrote on the microblogging site under the name "whitehouseostp."

Accolades started pouring in to the company soon after the launch, Muusk said. [Photos: Falcon 9 Rocket's 1st Launch.]

"In President Barack Obama's new plan for NASA, a new player has taken center stage ? American capitalism and entrepreneurship ? and today's SpaceX launch strengthens my hope that commercial space companies will at long last remove the cost barrier that slows our exploration of the solar system," Peter H. Diamandis, chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, said in a statement from the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group.

But not everyone was convinced that commercial space companies should play such a prime role in NASA's future.

"Even this modest success is more than a year behind schedule, and the project deadlines of other private space companies continue to slip as well," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said in a statement. "This test does not change the fact that commercial space programs are not ready to close the gap in human spaceflight if the space shuttle is retired this year with no proven replacement capability and the Constellation program is simultaneously cancelled as the President proposes."

Musk took offense at her complaints. "I don?t understand why she's trying to hurt a Texas company," he said, pointing out that Hutchison represents Texas, and SpaceX has a large workforce in the state.

"This is an important step in the advancement of commercial space," he maintained.

SpaceX even received nods from some space legends.

"As a former Apollo astronaut, I think it's safe to say that SpaceX and the other commercial developers embody the 21st century version of the Apollo frontier spirit," said Russell "Rusty" Schweickart, former Apollo 9 astronaut. "It's enormously gratifying to see them succeed today."

Former space shuttle astronaut Byron Lichtenberg also chimed in in a statement: "I expect that there will be a lot more astronauts in the future because of today's success. Lower cost launches means more flights, which means more astronauts. We've only had 500 astronauts in the history of the Space Age, but I hope to see thousands more in the decades to come."