A Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., early Tuesday. It's… (Craig Rubadoux / Associated…)
In a pivotal moment for private spaceflight, a towering white rocket lifted into space a cone-shaped capsule headed for a three-day trip carrying cargo to the International Space Station and a tricky rendezvous in outer space this week.
The launch Tuesday marked the first time a private company has sent a spacecraft to the space station. On a column of fire, a Falcon 9 rocket — built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX — carried the unmanned Dragon capsule into space after a 3:44 a.m. EDT launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
But the launch is just the beginning of the mission, and some of the most challenging tasks lie ahead.
The Dragon capsule is on its way to rendezvous with the space station as it circles the Earth at about 17,000 mph. Once the Dragon catches up to the station, the next big step will take place Thursday, when Dragon's sensors and flight systems will be given a series of complicated tests to determine whether the vehicle is ready to berth with the space station.
These tests include delicate maneuvers to guide the vehicle to within 1.5 miles of the station. If all goes well, the crew aboard the station will try to grab the spacecraft Friday with a robotic arm and pull it in.
"We obviously have to go through a number of steps to berth with the space station, but everything is looking really good, and I think I would count today as a success no matter what happens with the rest of the mission," Elon Musk, SpaceX's 40-year-old billionaire founder and chief executive, said at a predawn news conference after the launch.
Musk spoke at company headquarters in Hawthorne. It was there that SpaceX employees had gathered, watched and cheered as the Falcon 9 climbed toward the heavens. The Dragon's roughly two-week mission will be completed when it splashes down in the Pacific hundreds of miles off Southern California. The craft will deploy parachutes to slow its descent after entering Earth's atmosphere.
"Everything that SpaceX is doing in orbit from now on is new for a private company and really pushing the envelope," said Alexander Saltman, executive director of the private space trade group Commercial Spaceflight Federation. "Because the mission is so difficult, it's quite possible that they won't accomplish all their goals. But even if they don't get everything this time, they'll be sure to try again next time around."
SpaceX's mission is considered the first test of NASA's plan to outsource space missions to private companies now that its fleet of space shuttles is retired. SpaceX aims to prove to NASA that its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule are ready to take on the task of hauling cargo — and eventually astronauts — for the space agency.
"Today marks the beginning of a new era in exploration," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a speech Tuesday at Cape Canaveral. "And while there is a lot of work ahead to successfully complete this mission, we are certainly off to good start."
After years of testing, the space agency is hoping to turn the job of carrying cargo and crews over to private industry at a lower cost. Meanwhile, the agency will focus on deep-space missions to land probes on asteroids and Mars.
The agency has poured nearly $400 million in seed money into SpaceX in hopes that the company can one day complete routine missions to the space station. NASA now is paying $63 million to the Russians each time it wants to send an astronaut to the station.
Critics, including some former astronauts, have voiced concerns about NASA's move toward private space missions. They said that private space companies are risky ventures with unproven technology.
SpaceX is one of the leading contenders to carry astronauts for NASA one day. Company officials say cargo missions will yield valuable flight experience toward accomplishing this goal by 2015.
Still, the company has experienced repeated delays over the years. For instance, SpaceX planned to launch the current mission Saturday. The countdown was flawless until the last second, when the rocket engines briefly fired up and then went dark.
SpaceX said a flight computer detected an anomaly in one of the rocket's nine engines and automatically shut down the launch sequence. Later that day, company engineers traced the problem to a faulty valve, and technicians fixed it within hours.
That made Tuesday's launch all the more exciting for Musk, who said that when he saw the Falcon 9 finally lift off, "every bit of adrenaline in my body released at that point."
Founded in 2002, SpaceX makes the Dragon and Falcon 9 at a sprawling facility in Hawthorne that once was used to assemble fuselage sections for Boeing 747s. The hardware is put on a big rig and trucked to Cape Canaveral for launches.
The company, with about 1,800 employees, 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 this year.
Congratulations flowed in to SpaceX from Twitter users all over the world, including members of Congress, executives at Virgin America and even the Republican Party of Florida.
"We're at the dawn of a new era in space exploration," Musk said. "There are no precedents for what we're doing here."
Times staff writer Tiffany Hsu contributed to this report.