by Jean-Louis Santini
Cape Canaveral, Florida (AFP) May 22, 2012
Opening a new era in private space flight, the US company SpaceX on Tuesday became the first commercial outfit to launch its own craft toward the International Space Station.
The test flight of the Dragon space capsule, which launched atop SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket at 3:44 am (0744 GMT), aims to show that industry can restore US access to the ISS after NASA retired its space shuttle fleet last year.
The mission is set to include a fly-by and berthing with the station in the next three days, before the capsule returns to Earth at the end of this month.
Shortly after liftoff, the cargo-carrying spacecraft entered orbit and live video images showed mission control staff at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California jumping from their seats, hugging and clapping.
SpaceX chief executive officer and Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk said watching the rocket rise from the launch pad was an "extremely intense moment."
"Every bit of adrenaline in my body released at that point," he told reporters after the flawless launch, which followed an attempt on Saturday that was scrubbed at the last second when computers detected high pressure in the central engine of the Falcon 9.
SpaceX engineers discovered the root cause was a faulty check valve and repaired it the same day.
No humans are traveling aboard the Dragon, but six astronauts are already at the $100-billion space lab to help the capsule latch on, to unload supplies and then restock the capsule with cargo to take back to Earth.
Also aboard were the ashes of hundreds of space enthusiasts including James Doohan who played "Scotty" on Star Trek, according to TrekNews.net, a go-to source for fans of the cult series.
"Dad, may the stars rise to meet you," tweeted Doohan's son Chris. "May the solar wind always be at your back."
On May 24, the spacecraft's sensors and flight systems are to undergo a series of tests to see if it is ready to berth, including a complicated fly-under at a distance of about 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers).
If NASA gives the green light, the Dragon will then approach the ISS on May 25 in an attempt to berth with the station.
The astronauts on board the ISS will maneuver the station's robotic arm to help capture the capsule and attach it to the orbiting research outpost.
The hatch of the Dragon is set to open on May 26 for unloading 521 kilograms (1,148 pounds) of cargo for the space lab and restocking it with a 660-kilogram (1,455-pound) load to return to Earth.
On May 31, the Dragon is to detach from the station and make a safe landing in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California.
SpaceX, owned by 40-year-old Musk, a billionaire who also co-founded PayPal, is the first of several US competitors to try sending spacecraft to the ISS with the goal of restoring US access to space for human travelers by 2015.
"We are really at the dawn of a new era of space exploration, one where there is a much bigger role for commercial space companies," Musk said, likening the space effort to the expansion of the Internet in the mid 1990s.
The company successfully test-launched its Falcon 9 rocket in June 2010, then made history with its Dragon launch in December of that year, becoming the first commercial outfit to send a spacecraft into orbit and back.
Its reusable Dragon capsule has been built to carry both cargo and up to seven crew members.
"Every launch into space is a thrilling event, but this one is especially exciting," said John Holdren, President Barack Obama's assistant for science and technology.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden congratulated SpaceX for opening "a new era in exploration."
"We're handing off to the private sector our transportation to the International Space Station so that NASA can focus on what we do best -- exploring even deeper into our solar system, with missions to an asteroid and Mars on the horizon."
Until now, only the space agencies of Russia, Japan and Europe have been able to send supply ships to the ISS.
The three-decade US shuttle program, which ferried astronauts and cargo to the research outpost, ended in 2011, leaving Russia as the sole taxi to the ISS until private industry comes up with a replacement.
SpaceX and a handful of other companies are being helped in their endeavors with seed money from NASA to build cargo and crew capability.
SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to supply the ISS with cargo in the coming years. Orbital Sciences has a $1.9 billion contract and is scheduled for its first launch attempt later this year.
Launch Pad at Space-Travel.com