CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A multimillionaire's test rocket blasted off on its maiden voyage Friday and successfully reached orbit in a dry run for NASA's push to go commercial.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket achieved Earth orbit nine minutes into the flight as planned, drawing praise from NASA, the White House and others eager for the company to start resupplying the International Space Station.
"This has really been a fantastic day," said an exuberant Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder. He said Friday's launch helps vindicate President Barack Obama's plan to give private companies the job of ferrying cargo and ultimately people to the space station, freeing up NASA to aim for true outer space.
"This bodes very well for the Obama plan," said Musk, the co-founder of PayPal. "It shows that even a sort of small new company like SpaceX can make a real difference."
In a telephone news conference, Musk said celebratory margaritas were on his immediate radar. But he's already looking ahead to the next Falcon 9 launch this summer and, hopefully, the first cargo run to the space station next year. Astronauts could follow within three years of the company getting a contract from NASA, he said, and quite possibly average citizens in five to six years.
"This is the dawn of a new era in space exploration, I think a very exciting era and one which I think will lead to the democratization of space, making space accessible to everyone eventually," Musk said. "Yeah, I think this is really a historic moment."
SpaceX's brand new rocket soared off its launch pad into thin clouds at mid-afternoon, carrying a test version of the company's spacecraft, named Dragon. The goal was to put the capsule into a 155-mile-high orbit, which it did. The capsule will remain in orbit for a year before descending and burning up in the atmosphere.
"A near bull's-eye," Musk said.
The first attempt to launch the 158-foot rocket was aborted in the final few seconds earlier in the afternoon because of questionable readings with the engine-ignition system.
NASA hopes to use the Falcon-Dragon combo for hauling supplies and possibly astronauts to the space station, once the shuttles retire later this year or early next.
Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX – or Space Exploration Technologies – is one of several companies vying for NASA's business. It was founded eight years ago by Musk, 38, a South African-born entrepreneur.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden called Friday's launch "an important milestone in the commercial transportation effort" and said it puts the company a step closer to supplying the space station.
And the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy shot out this tweet: "what a show!"
"My e-mail box has gone bonkers," Musk said, "and my phone has been ringing off the hook."
Along with all the congratulations, there were cautionary words from critics like Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who noted "this modest success" does not mean commercial companies are ready to step in and replace NASA.
Musk acknowledged Friday's flight to orbit does not mean the commercial space industry can do anything, anytime, but noted it should provide "a huge boost of confidence" for the industry.
The Planetary Society shares his assessment.
"Hats off," the society said in a statement. "Today's flight of Falcon 9 could be the first small step toward relieving NASA launchers of the burden of low-Earth orbit, thus freeing the U.S. space agency to reach new worlds."
Both Musk and the former space shuttle and space station commander in charge of astronaut safety and mission assurance for SpaceX, Kenneth Bowersox, repeatedly told reporters that they would learn from the test flight, no matter what the outcome and that it would help improve future Falcon flights.
The next Falcon 9 launch is targeted for sometime this summer from the same pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, less than five miles from NASA's shuttle launch pads at Kennedy Space Center. That rocket will hoist a true Dragon vessel on a test flight. The Dragon test vehicle launched Friday will remain in orbit for a year before re-entering the atmosphere and burning up.
SpaceX has poured close to $400 million into its two lines of Falcon rockets. The Falcon 1 successfully flew in 2008 after three failed attempts, and again in 2009.
The Falcon takes its name from Han Solo's spaceship in the "Star Wars" film saga, the Millennium Falcon. Musk chose the name Dragon because of how some viewed his unlikely venture, borrowing from Puff the Magic Dragon.