SpaceX Launch Signals New Era In Spaceflight

A company called SpaceX has put an unmanned capsule into orbit, on the first-ever commercial mission to deliver cargo to the international space station. If successful, the mission will be a key step towards NASA's goal of privatizing space travel to the orbiting outpost.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: T-minus 10, nine, eight, seven, six...

CORNISH: And today marked the start of what could be a historic space mission. A rocket took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, but it wasn't carrying a NASA spacecraft.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...three, two, one, zero. And launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, as NASA turns to the private sector to resupply the international space station.

CORNISH: SpaceX is a small American company, and it just sent up an unmanned capsule called Dragon that's packed with cargo for the station. As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, if Dragon can manage to dock there later this week, SpaceX will have achieved something that's only been done by a few big government space agencies.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: As the Dragon capsule blasted off before dawn, the flames from its Falcon 9 rocket looked like a bright, shining star moving up through the pitch black sky. Less than 10 minutes later...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Falcon 9 and Dragon are in orbit.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Dragon (unintelligible) separation (unintelligible).

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The capsule separated from its rocket. SpaceX launch controllers clapped and hugged. The company was founded a decade ago by Elon Musk, who made a fortune with the Internet firm PayPal. Musk spoke to reporters through a video link from SpaceX headquarters in California. Someone asked how he'd felt as the rocket left the ground.

ELON MUSK: Every bit of adrenaline in my body released at that point. It's so - it's an extremely intense moment.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Musk wants to transform space flight by making it far cheaper. And NASA wants private vehicles like Dragon to take over routine runs to the space station now that the agency has retired its space shuttles. NASA has a cargo delivery contract with SpaceX and worked closely with the company to make this mission happen.

CHARLES BOLDEN: What a spectacular start. I mean, it was just picture-perfect - a picture-perfect launch. Everything on the vehicle's working well.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA administrator Charles Bolden stood next to the big countdown clock at Kennedy Space Center where people had gathered to watch the launch. He says this shows that the United States is still in the space game.

BOLDEN: You know, there were people who thought that we had gone away. And today says, no, we're not gone away at all. We've got the Dragon, the SpaceX NASA team that came through this morning with flying colors, and I hope everybody celebrates that for what it is.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In a few years, private space taxis could carry astronauts. But this time, Dragon is just stuffed with supplies like food, clothes and a laptop computer. And it can't just casually fly up to the station. NASA needs to make sure there is no chance of a collision, so ground controllers at SpaceX will have to put Dragon through its paces, flying it under and around the station from a safe distance to show it's fully under control.

Only then will NASA let it enter the keep out sphere, an imaginary circle around the outpost. Once it comes close enough, the astronauts who live there will use a robotic arm to grab Dragon and attach it to the station. That could happen on Friday, or maybe not at all. Jeff Greason co-founded another commercial space flight company, XCOR Aerospace. He says the goals of this mission are very ambitious.

JEFF GREASON: SpaceX is attempting to combine the objectives of several different test missions into one mission. And if they pull it off, of course, that's fabulous.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But he says even if they only get halfway there, this mission will still be one for the books. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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