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Today, a company called SpaceX offered a peek into the future of the American space program. The company's rocket, Falcon 9, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It carried a space capsule called Dragon. After orbiting the Earth twice, Dragon splashed down into the Pacific Ocean.

In the future, that capsule or something like it is intended to supply the International Space Station, taking over for NASA's space shuttle. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

JOE PALCA: Once the last space shuttle is retired next year, NASA plans to rely on private companies to take cargo and ultimately astronauts into space. To encourage companies to get on board, the agency decided to try something new: Instead of the aerospace giants, NASA invited smaller, entrepreneurial companies to propose new launch systems.

Gwynne Shotwell is president of SpaceX. At a news conference earlier this week, Shotwell explained how her company was able to go from discussions to a launch in just four years.

Ms. GWYNNE SHOTWELL (President, SpaceX): We don't have to do the mother-may-I cycle with a huge number of organizations. We basically have a set of performance requirements that we have to hit.

PALCA: Shotwell said the new partnership model also has benefits to taxpayers.

Ms. SHOTWELL: If we overrun this program, we have to come up with the money through investment to cover the cost, which is dramatically different from taxpayers funding cost-type contracts.

PALCA: In cost-type contracts, the taxpayers are on the hook for overruns.

Today's launch was the first time any private company has tried to put a space capsule into orbit and bring it safely back to Earth. At the pre-launch news conference, NASA's Phil McAlister took pains to remind reporters that today's launch was part of a test program.

Mr. PHIL McALISTER (NASA): Spaceflight is very, very difficult, and if history is any guide, there is undoubtedly going to be some anomalies as we go through the test program.

PALCA: But today, on a beautiful, sunny morning in Florida, the countdown appeared to be going swimmingly.

Unidentified Man #1: T minus 13 minutes...

PALCA: And then, trouble.

Unidentified Man #2: Abort, abort, abort.

Unidentified Man #1: If not already aborted, verify the flight. Computer is not in start-up.

PALCA: Slightly less than three minutes before liftoff, telemetry indicated a problem with the launch safety system. Turns out the telemetry was faulty, not the safety system. So the SpaceX launch team regrouped and tried again.

Unidentified Man #3: The clock is counting...

PALCA: This time, there were no hitches. Not surprisingly, a SpaceX countdown sounds pretty much like a NASA countdown.

Unidentified Man #3: Five, four, three, two, one, zero.

(Soundbite of rocket)

PALCA: Falcon 9 climbed through the blue sky and wispy clouds over the launch pad. As the flight progressed, the word nominal was used a lot.

Unidentified Man #4: Second stage propulsion performance is nominal.

Unidentified Man #5: Power system looks nominal.

Unidentified Man #6: Guidance is nominal.

PALCA: Engineers love nominal. It means nothing's happening besides what's expected. After nine minutes, the second-stage engine shut down.

Unidentified Man #7: (Unintelligible) shutdown.

Unidentified Man #8: Dragon is in orbit.

PALCA: On this flight, the Dragon capsule had no cargo, just the navigation and maneuvering systems it will use in the future. Three and a half hours after liftoff, the capsule landed safely in the Pacific.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said today's launch was a milestone in the history of spaceflight.

Mr. CHARLES BOLDEN (Administrator, NASA): Not because it represents anything that we've never done before, but it represents the entry of commercial entities, non-government entities, into access to space.

PALCA: And for now, that's the direction the American space program is going.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

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