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SpaceX launches historic mission to space station

May 22, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan
  • SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifts off at Cape Canaveral, Fla., embarking on its mission to the International Space Station.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifts off at Cape Canaveral, Fla., embarking… (NASA )

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket roared to life before dawn at Cape Canaveral, Fla., today and blasted into space on a column of fire that lit the night sky for miles around.

The nine-engine rocket lifted off at 3:44 a.m. EDT carrying a cone-shaped space capsule that's set to berth with the International Space Station later this week.

SpaceX, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is the first private company to embark on such a mission. Up until now, sending a spacecraft to the space station has been a feat that has only been accomplished by four of the world's wealthiest and most technologically advanced governments: the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Union.

The launch marked a major milestone in efforts to shift spacecraft development -- long dominated by governments and large, entrenched aerospace firms -- to privately funded firms such as SpaceX that so far have been funding their ventures largely on their own.

About 10 minutes into the spaceflight, SpaceX confirmed that its gleaming, white Falcon 9 rocket had lifted the unmanned Dragon space capsule into orbit. The craft is now making its way to the space station for docking -- which is no guarantee because of the tremendous difficulties involved, but could happen as early as Friday.

SpaceX's much-anticipated mission is considered the first test of NASA's plan to outsource space missions to privately funded companies now that its fleet of space shuttles is retired.

The Hawthorne-based company intends to prove to NASA that the Falcon 9 and Dragon are ready to take on the task of hauling cargo -- and eventually astronauts -- for the space agency.

INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC: SpaceX's demonstration mission

Even though the current mission is classified as a test flight, the Dragon capsule is carrying about half a ton of food and other supplies for the crew aboard the station.

The company, with about 1,800 employees, already has a $1.6-billion contract to haul cargo in 12 flights to the space station for NASA. If the current mission is successful, SpaceX will begin fulfilling the contract later this year.

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Los Angeles billionaire Elon Musk. The company makes the Dragon and Falcon 9 at a sprawling facility in Hawthorne that once was used to assemble fuselage sections for Boeing 747s.

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