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."
"There's so much that can go wrong, and it all went right," Musk said.
His next challenge is a Dragon capsule rendezvous with the space station that is scheduled for next year.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who was a member of a 1986 shuttle mission and now heads a Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA, described the flight in historic terms. He called the flight "the dawn of a new era of U.S. space exploration that should ensure America remains a leader in space exploration."
In September, Congress approved a NASA budget blueprint negotiated by Nelson and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) that would help the commercial rocket industry less than Obama wanted but much more than many vocal critics were calling for. Freed from transport duties to and from the space station, NASA is now supposed to focus on building a new deep-space rocket that can carry out missions to Mars. Lawmakers hope to pass a spending bill that will support those new goals by year's end.
The Falcon 9 rocket is a pipsqueak compared with the space shuttle it will partially replace - measuring 157 feet with the capsule and weighing 735,000 pounds. The much larger shuttle was needed to fly parts up to the $100 billion international space station, but the fleet is being retired because of its age and because its job is largely done. Each shuttle flight costs about $1 billion, while the entire NASA contribution so far to SpaceX has been $253 million, according to NASA officials.
While the Falcon 9 launch was several years late and over budget, the additional costs have been picked up by investors and the delay is much shorter than in previous programs.
"Both of those things are remarkable and an anomaly in terms of any historical development that I'm aware of, in terms of a traditional NASA development," Philip McAlister, acting director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, said at a news briefing this week.
Although SpaceX is the lead company in commercial space services for NASA under the agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services system, it is not alone. Orbital Sciences of Dulles also has a contract to provide cargo services to the space station, and Boeing has also said it wants to enter the race for contracts. If the commercial cargo program makes progress, officials hope it will be followed by a commercial program to bring astronauts to the station.
The commercial rocket companies also hope to expand their efforts in the years ahead to include space tourism, with stays at orbiting commercial stations.