SpaceX rocket launch heralded as successful test of commercial spaceflight

The first SpaceX Falcon 9 demonstration launch for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program lifts-off Wednesday from Cape Canaveral.
By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 10:08 PM

The first of what NASA hopes will become a fleet of privately built rockets and capsules successfully launched from Cape Canaveral on Wednesday morning in a major test for the commercial space industry. After twice circling the globe, the capsule landed in the Pacific as planned three hours later.

The successful splashdown marks the first time a commercial company has launched a rocket and capsule into space and brought the spacecraft safely back to Earth.

The landing was announced on the Twitter account of Space Explorations Technologies, or SpaceX, the company that has pioneered the new era of commercial space travel. A recovery team was at the capsule - built to be reusable - within 20 minutes of splashdown, suggesting that it was on target for its landing.

The Falcon 9 rocket built by SpaceX was on its first full test flight. Its Dragon capsule was empty and unmanned, but plans are to fill it in the months ahead with cargo - and ultimately with astronauts - to transport to the international space station.

NASA's deputy administrator, Lori Garver, said after the splashdown that the administration was delighted by the success and that "the path to and from the space station is going to be this: a partnership between private companies and government to get the job done most effectively."

She said she expected skepticism about commercial space efforts to diminish with the success though hardly go away.

"Change is hard, especially in government, but that's what the president wants to bring," she said.

The flight is an important moment for President Obama and his administration's hopes to expand commercial space efforts in low Earth orbit as a way to free up NASA funds for missions to send astronauts much deeper into space and ultimately to Mars.

Obama pushed for substantially increased funding in his 2011 budget for the commercial space program, started under President George W. Bush, but met resistance in Congress. A deal was ultimately struck for a more limited increase.

Obama also succeeded in winning funds to have the space station remain in orbit an additional five years, until 2020. But with the space shuttle program set to end, the United States currently has no way to get to the station and has to buy transport service from Russia for cargo and crew.

SpaceX, founded in 2002 by Elon Musk and run from California, successfully launched a Dragon 9 rocket in June, but that test was done without a real capsule. Musk, who founded and sold the online payment company PayPal and is also behind development of the Tesla electric car, said before the launch that he rated the chances for a completely successful mission at about 60 percent.

After the splashdown, Musk said he was in "semi-shock."

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