SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasted off, launching the cargo-laden Dragon capsule into Earth’s orbit on its way to the International Space Station for NASA’s first privately-run supply mission.
The engine fires traced a bright trail across the night sky over NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the site of many launches into space after the on-time lift off at at 8:35 pm (0035 GMT) on Sunday.
Dragon, carrying around 1,000 pounds (455 kilograms) of supplies, is set to reach the ISS on Wednesday, where it will spend about two weeks. This is the first of 12 planned missions in the US firm’s $1.6 billion contract with NASA.
“Everything worked well, the weather stayed good — that was the one concern,” said aerospace consultant Jeff Foust, editor of The Space Review.
“I think this is the first time the Falcon 9 has launched on the very first attempt,” he added, recalling that one launch attempt for a previous mission in May had to abort just as it was meant to take off.
“Clearly they’re getting a more mature system there that is working very well,” Foust told AFP from Cape Canaveral, where he observed the launch.
SpaceX’s May mission, a nearly flawless test flight to the orbiting outpost, was a nine-day trip to deliver cargo to the $100 billion orbiting station — the first time a commercial outfit had sent its own capsule there and back.
Although the equipment and software are largely the same this time around, SpaceX said the launch is hardly routine.
“Every time we fly, we learn something,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said in a Saturday news conference.
SpaceX, owned by billionaire Paypal co-founder Elon Musk, is one of several private companies working with the US space agency to send flights to and from the ISS. NASA has been relying on Russian spacecraft for the last year, after retiring its fleet of shuttles.
The mission is the next step in American efforts to commercialize the space industry, in hopes of reducing costs and spreading them among a wider group than governments alone.
SpaceX says it has 50 launches planned — both NASA missions and commercial flights — representing about $4 billion in contracts.
Dragon is scheduled to return to Earth — splashing down off the coast of southern California — on October 28, carrying about 734 pounds of scientific tests and results.
So far, SpaceX has only sent unmanned flights into orbit, but the company aims to send a manned flight within the next three or four years. It is under a separate contract with NASA to refine the capsule so that it can carry a crew. AFP