RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A rocket was launched yesterday, not from Cape Canaveral, but from a small island in the Pacific. An American company called SpaceX sent it up.
SpaceX was founded by a young man who made a great deal of money on the Internet. He says he can succeed where others have failed at bringing down the cost of leaving the Earth.
NPR's David Kestenbaum has reports.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Elon Musk is in his mid-30s. He studied physics in college, then made some $300 million building up and selling the Internet company PayPal. He spent $100 million creating a small space startup company with big ambitions. I spoke with him when he was getting started.
(Soundbite of previous NPR broadcast)
Mr. ELON MUSK (Founder, SpaceX): You know, my interest is really in helping to enable humanity to become truly a space traveling civilization, to reduce the cost of getting to space so that one day relatively average people can go to space and ultimately that we can establish a self-sustaining civilization on another planet.
KESTENBAUM: Musk says he hopes to bring the cost of putting something in orbit down by a factor of 10 to $1,000 a pound. He hired some engineers from the big aerospace companies. Still, SpaceX has just 250 employees.
Last year, the company tried to launch its Falcon I rocket, but it caught fire on the way up. The satellite it carried fell back to Earth, landing, oddly, not far from the packing crate it arrived in.
So yesterday a fresh Falcon I sat on the island launch pad. A video link showed palm trees waving in the background.
Unidentified Woman: Five, four…
Unidentified Man: Main engine ignition sequence started.
Unidentified Woman: …three, two, one, zero.
KESTENBAUM: A cloud of exhaust blocked the view of the camera, and the mission was aborted - low pressure in the combustion chamber. The cloud cleared, the rocket was still standing there. Someone cursed about something. The rocket was refueled, and the countdown began a second time.
Unidentified Woman: Seven, six, five, four…
Unidentified Man: First take engine sequence initiated.
Unidentified Woman: …three, two, one…
KESTENBAUM: The rocket rose.
Unidentified Man: Falcon has cleared the tower.
KESTENBAUM: A camera attached to the rocket showed the Earth below receding. Minutes later, Falcon I had reached space.
Unidentified Man: Separation (unintelligible)
Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)
(Soundbite of cheering)
KESTENBAUM: The folks in the company's Washington office opened champagne bottles. But when Elon Musk spoke to reporters afterward from California, he sounded frazzled. He said the rocket reached an altitude of at least 180 miles but fell short of the intended orbit. The rocket wobbled a bit and shut down early.
Mr. MUSK: A pretty nerve-wracking day to say the least. So that's, you know, well, why I'm a little strained.
KESTENBAUM: Still, he said, a lot of hard things had gone right.
Mr. MUSK: You know, if you look at the early history of rocketry, you know, they had I think something, like, 12 Atlas failures before the 13th one was successful. You know, to get this far on our second launch being an all-new rocket, I mean it's just, new main engine, new first-stage and new second-stage engine and, you know, with so many new things to have gotten this far is great.
KESTENBAUM: SpaceX says it has $400 million in orders lined up. The Falcon I rocket was carrying a bit of cargo - some experimental tracking devices designed by NASA. It could cut costs by eliminating the need for tracking on the ground.
Martin Bull(ph) is chief engineer at NASA's Wallops Research Range and worked on the project. He says the launch left him with mixed emotions.
Mr. MARTIN BULL (Chief Engineer, NASA's Wallops Research Range): I think I was excited that perhaps it would achieve orbit and would be a total unqualified success. And therefore, it was a bit more of letdown when it eventually did not. But it's still a great beginning.
KESTENBAUM: Last year, SpaceX won a $280-million award from NASA. The agency is hoping a space startup company can deliver cargo to the space station and do what the space shuttle was also supposed to do - make space travel more affordable.
David Kestenbaum, NPR News.