WASHINGTON A new era in American space flight dawned on Friday (June 4) when a private U.S. company successfully launched a two-stage rocket carrying an unmanned test capsule to orbit.
Orbit was achieved at approximately 8 minutes and 44 seconds after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The Falcon 9 rocket, built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX, Hawthorne, Calif.), roared off of Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral at 2:45 p.m. EDT. The test flight of the 154-foot-tall rocket was designed to propel what SpaceX founder Elon Musk called a "structural test article of our Dragon spacecraft" to orbit. The flight trajectory took the rocket to the northeast over the Atlantic Ocean.
Flight controllers reported that guidance and avionics systems aboard the Falcon 9 were performing "nominally."
Musk said the dummy Dragon capsule achieved a nearly perfect orbit, with an apogee about 1 percent higher than planned. SpaceX had been aiming for a nearly circular orbit of about 155 miles.
Falcon 9 mission patch|
The test flight was primarily designed to collect data on the two-stage rocket’s performance, including its ability to send flight and systems telemetry back to ground controllers. SpaceX officials said reaching orbital velocity would be a bonus, reflecting their concerns about whether the Falcon 9's two stages would separate on schedule.
A video feed from the rocket showed the two stages cleanly separating about six minutes after launch, when a single second-stage engine ignited to boost the payload into Earth orbit.
The Falcon 9 is considered the first medium-lift rocket developed by a private contractor. The first stage consists of a cluster of nine Merlin engines designed by SpaceX that are capable of producing over 1.1 million pounds of thrust. The rocket’s second stage consists of a single Merlin engine that boosted the test capsule to orbital velocity.
The two-stage rocket is powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene. It weighs 735,000 pounds.
SpaceX has been awarded several NASA contracts to deliver cargo, and eventually crews to the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 also serves as the cornerstone of U.S. efforts to build up a commercial launch capability that would free NASA to focus on manned missions beyond Earth orbit. Critics have questioned whether a commercial rocket can safely carry humans to orbit.
Today’s successful launch by SpaceX addressed at least some of those concerns.
The launch countdown was delayed twice for more than two hours while Air Force range safety officials confirmed that the Falcon 9’s self-destruct mechanism was working properly if the rocket strayed off course. The launch was reportedly also delayed by a private boat discovered in the East Coast missile range.
A first launch attempt at 1:30 p.m. EDT failed when computers shut down engines at ignition when sensors detected a problem. SpaceX technicians then quickly recycled the countdown for a second try, which went off without a hitch.
SpaceX officials could be heard over an audio feed cheering when the payload reached orbit.
NASA was largely an observer for the dramatic test flight, but will now sponsor the next Falcon 9 launch as part of its Commercial Orbit Transportation Services project later this year.
In a statement, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden congratulated SpaceX, adding: "This launch of the Falcon 9 gives us even more confidence that a resupply vehicle will be available after the space shuttle fleet is retired."
The U.S. shuttle fleet will be retired after 30 years as early as the end of the year.