Commercial spaceflight took a giant leap forward Sunday with the successful launch of the Falcon 1, a two-stage rocket designed and built by California-based SpaceX. The launch was the company's fourth attempt to reach orbit.
Blasting off from the Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll on Omelek Island in the central Pacific, the 70-foot-tall rocket reached its intended orbit nine and half minutes after launch. According to the company, the spacecraft achieved its intended elliptical orbit of 500 km by 700 km with 9.2 degrees of inclination.
"This is a great day for SpaceX and the culmination of an enormous amount of work by a great team," said billionaire Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX. "The data shows we achieved a super-precise orbit insertion -- middle of the bull's-eye -- and then went on to coast and restart the second stage, which was icing on the cake."
The Falcon 1 craft was carrying a dummy payload weighing 364 pounds and standing about five feet tall. The payload remains attached to the second stage of the spacecraft as it orbits the Earth.
Fourth Time's the Charm
SpaceX was founded just four years ago by Musk, who invested $100 million to get the company running. An additional $20 million has been invested by the Founders Fund, a venture-capital firm specializing in early-stage seed technology investments.
The three previous tests of the Falcon 1 rocket failed to reach orbit. The most disappointing failure was the third launch just two months ago, which resulted in the loss of a payload containing two NASA satellites and the ashes of 208 people. Among those whose ashes were included were James Doohan, the actor who portrayed Scotty on Star Trek, and NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper.
The SpaceX Web site (http://www.spacex.com/) has dramatic video footage taken from the Falcon 1 spacecraft during the launch. In the first half-minute, the crescent shape of the Kwajalein Atoll rapidly fills the view, surrounded by the blue-green Pacific Ocean. At two minutes and 38 seconds, the first-stage rocket separates from the craft and the second-stage rocket begins to burn. And at exactly nine minutes and 30 seconds, the second-stage rocket shuts down, leaving Falcon 1 floating in Earth orbit.
A Future for Private Spaceflights
SpaceX has one additional launch of the Falcon 1 planned, with a payload containing a satellite for Malaysia called RazakSat. If that launch goes well, SpaceX will begin tests of a much larger rocket dubbed Falcon 9.
The larger spacecraft, the company says, will be used to lift cargo and even satellites to the International Space Station following the shutdown of the NASA shuttle program in 2010.
John Yembrick, a spokesperson for NASA, said the space agency "emphatically supports" the development of commercial space vehicles.
"The future of spaceflight has many challenges that will require NASA to make investments in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS)," Yembrick said, "which seeks a cost-effective strategy to progress space transportation through the private sector. We plan to continue to partner with the commercial and entrepreneurial space sector in resupplying the International Space Station and carry out our long-terms goals of returning to the moon and explore beyond."