SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasted off on Sunday, launching the cargo-laden Dragon capsule into orbit en route to the International Space Station for Nasa’s first privately-run supply mission.
The engine fires blazed a bright trail across the night sky over Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida – the site of many launches into space – after the on-time liftoff at 8.35pm (8.35am Hong Kong time).
Ten minutes later, Dragon separated from the second stage of the rocket and reached orbit, where it spread its two wing-like solar antennas.
“It’s a great evening. Dragon was inserted into a picture perfect orbit. Its solar rays deployed and it’s driving its way to station,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell told reporters after the launch.
“That’s just awesome.”
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) October 8, 2012 
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) October 8, 2012 
Shotwell later noted that there was “an anomaly on engine one”, though she said she did yet not have further details, adding that the equipment was designed to overcome engine loss, and that it did not create any problems for positioning the capsule.
“We’re operational,” she said, responding to a question, “doesn’t mean we’re not going to stop learning and ensuring that these vehicles are as reliable as we can possibly make them”.
The mission – the first of 12 planned trips in the US firm’s US$1.6 billion contract with Nasa – is a milestone for American efforts to privatise the space industry, in hopes of reducing costs and spreading them among a wider group than governments alone.
“We’re handing off to the private sector our transportation to the International Space Station so that Nasa can focus on what we do best: exploring even deeper into our solar system with missions to an asteroid and Mars on the horizon,” Nasa chief Charles Bolden said at a press conference.
“This is what I call a historic event in the annals of spaceflight,” the Nasa leader said.
“This was not something that Nasa prepared, built, bought or did anything. SpaceX as a private company and our partner produced what you saw tonight. That’s American industry at its best,” he added.
The capsule, loaded with 400kg of supplies, is set to reach the space station on Wednesday, where it will dock with the help of the orbiting outpost’s robotic arm and two of the station’s six crewmembers.
The craft will then spend 18 days there before splashing back down off the coast of southern California on October 28, carrying about 1,673 pounds of supplies, hardware and scientific tests and results.
SpaceX’s craft is the only one currently in operation that can bring cargo back to earth.
The company, owned by billionaire Paypal co-founder Elon Musk, is one of several private firms working with the US space agency to send flights to and from the space station.
Nasa has been relying on Russian spacecraft for the last year, after retiring its fleet of shuttles – but the Soyuz craft does not have room for cargo on the return flight.
The successful launch on Sunday signalled SpaceX and its equipment are getting a handle on the trip into orbit, according to aerospace consultant Jeff Foust, editor of The Space Review.
“I think this is the first time the Falcon 9 has launched on the very first attempt,” Foust said, recalling that one launch attempt for a previous mission in May had to abort just as it was meant to take off.
“Clearly they’re getting a more mature system there that is working very well,” he said from Cape Canaveral, where he observed the launch.
SpaceX’s May mission – a nearly flawless nine-day test flight to deliver cargo to the US$100 billion orbiting station – marked the first time a commercial outfit had sent its own capsule there and back.
SpaceX says it has 50 launches planned – both Nasa missions and commercial flights – representing about US$4 billion in contracts.
So far, SpaceX has only sent unmanned flights into orbit, but the company aims to send a manned flight within the next three or four years. It is under a separate contract with Nasa to refine the capsule so that it can carry a crew.