The SpaceX rocket Falcon 9 shoots into space at Cape Canaveral on Tuesday. (AP)
Cape Canaveral (Florida), May 22 (AP): A first-of-its-kind commercial supply ship rocketed towards the International Space Station following a successful liftoff early today, opening a new era of dollar-driven spaceflight.
The SpaceX company made history as its Falcon 9 rocket rose from its seaside launch pad and pierced the pre-dawn sky, aiming for a rendezvous in a few days with the space station. The unmanned rocket carried into orbit a capsule named Dragon that is packed with 453kg of Space Station provisions.
It is the first time a private company has launched a vessel to the Space Station. Only major governments had done it before.
“Falcon flew perfectly!!” SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, said via Twitter. “Dragon in orbit ... Feels like a giant weight just came off my back.”
This time, the Falcon’s nine engines kept firing all the way till liftoff. On Saturday, flight computers aborted the launch with a half-second remaining in the countdown; a bad engine valve was replaced. The White House quickly offered congratulations.
“Every launch into space is a thrilling event, but this one is especially exciting,” said John Holdren, President Barack Obama’s chief science adviser. “This expanded role for the private sector will free up more of Nasa’s resources to do what Nasa does best — tackle the most demanding technological challenges in space, including those of human space flight beyond low Earth orbit.”
Flight controllers applauded when the Dragon reached orbit nine minutes into the flight, then embraced one another once the solar panels on the spacecraft popped open. Many of the SpaceX controllers wore untucked T-shirts and jeans or even shorts, a stark contrast to Nasa’s old suit-and-tie shuttle crowd. The hopes of SpaceX employees were riding on that rocket, Musk noted, and everyone felt “tremendous elation”.
So did Nasa.
The space agency is banking on the switch from government to commercial cargo providers in the US, now that the shuttles no longer are flying. Astronauts could begin taking commercial rides to the space station in three to five years, if all goes well.
“The significance of this day cannot be overstated,” said a beaming Nasa administrator Charles Bolden. “It’s a great day for America. It’s actually a great day for the world because there are people who thought that we had gone away, and today says, ‘No, we’re not going away at all.’”
The real test comes on Thursday, when the Dragon reaches the vicinity of the space station. It will undergo practice manoeuvres and it all goes well, the docking will occur on Friday. Musk will preside over the operation from the company’s Mission Control in California, where he monitored the liftoff.
Nasa is looking to the private sector to take over orbital trips in this post-shuttle period, and several US companies are vying for the opportunity.
The goal is to get American astronauts launching again from US soil — creating jobs at home and halting the outsourcing, as Bolden put it.
Until their retirement last summer to museums, Nasa’s shuttles provided the bulk of space station equipment and even the occasional crew member. American astronauts are riding Russian rockets to orbit until SpaceX or one of its competitors takes over.