There was great excitement Tuesday for SpaceX, a small U.S. rocket company trying to bring down the cost of leaving the Earth. From a small island in the Pacific, SpaceX managed to send a rocket into space.
SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, a young man in his mid-30s. He studied physics in college and then made hundreds of millions of dollars building up — and then selling — the Internet company PayPal. Musk then put $100 million into a small space start-up company with big ambitions.
"My interest is really in helping to enable humanity to become a space-faring civilization," Musk says. "To reduce costs 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."
Musk says he hopes to bring the cost of putting something in orbit down by a factor of ten — to $1,000 a pound. He hired engineers from the big aerospace companies, but SpaceX remains small, with just 250 employees.
Last year, the company tried to launch its "Falcon 1" rocket, but it caught fire on the way up. The satellite it carried fell back to earth, landing not far from the packing crate in which it arrived. On Tuesday, a fresh Falcon 1 sat on the island launch pad with palm trees waving in the background.
Tuesday's first launch attempt was aborted because of low pressure in the combustion chamber. A cloud of exhaust surrounded the rocket, and when it cleared, the rocket was still on the ground. Someone cursed, the rocket was refueled, and the countdown began a second time.
This time, the rocket rose, and a camera attached to the rocket showed the earth below receding. Minutes later, Falcon 1 had reached space.
SpaceX employees 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 did not reach its intended orbit and likely fell back to earth. The engines wobbled a bit toward the end, he said, causing an early shut down.
"[It was a] pretty nerve-wracking day to say the least," Musk says.
But he called the launch a success overall. He said the rocket reached an altitude of approximately 200 miles, solidly into space, and just 50 miles below the International Space Station.
"If you look at early history of rocketry," Musk says, "They had, I think, something like 12 Atlas failures before the 13th one was successful. To get this far on our second launch being an all-new rocket... with so many new things, to have gotten this far is great."
SpaceX says it has $400 million dollars in orders lined up.
The Falcon 1 rocket was carrying a bit of cargo — experimental tracking devices designed by NASA — that could cut costs by eliminating the need for tracking on the ground.
Barton Bull, chief engineer at NASA's Wallops Research Range, worked on the project. He says the launch left him with mixed emotions.
"I think I was excited that perhaps it would achieve orbit and would be a total unqualified success," Bull says. "Therefore [it was] a bit more of a letdown when it eventually did not. But it's still a great beginning."
Last year, SpaceX won a $280 million dollar award from NASA. The agency is hoping a space start-up company can deliver cargo to the space station. NASA is also hoping SpaceX can do what the space shuttle was supposed to do — make space travel more affordable.