Dragon Spacecraft Roars Into Orbit

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Space Exploration Corp.'s Dragon spaceship blasted off from Cape Canaveral at 10:42 a.m. Wednesday morning atop a Falcon 9 rocket, beginning a groundbreaking test for the commercial spaceflight industry.

If the entire mission goes as planned, it will mark the first time a private company has launched and re-entered a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit -- and could signal a new stage in NASA's plan to privatize the spaceflight industry.

"It's a milestone on the path to realizing the first commercial human spaceflight capability," Bretton Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told SPACE.com prior to the launch. "It's historic in that it's the beginning of a paradigm shift from a government human spaceflight architecture to one that opens up human spaceflight to the private sector."

"Falcon 9 nailed it!" exclaimed Bill Nye, the Executive Director of the Planetary Society. "We congratulate Elon Musk and his team on a successful launch -- another step towards commercial applications that may one day help NASA carry supplies and astronauts to low-Earth orbit. Bold endeavors like this will advance the chances for success for everyone in the Earth-orbit business."

The planned launch had been delayed from Tuesday due to cracks in the Falcon 9's second-stage rocket engine nozzle. The initial launch was scheduled for 9:03, but was put on hold following false telemetry readings. After correcting the data, SpaceX was prepared for the successful launch.

Partnering with NASA

The test is also the first mission by any company under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which is designed to foster the development of private vehicles with the ability to carry cargo -- and eventually crew -- to the International Space Station. [INFOGRAPHIC: Inside Look at SpaceX's Dragon Capsule]

SpaceX already has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to provide cargo flights to the space station using the company's Dragon capsule. The hope is that commercial providers such as SpaceX will help fill the gap created when NASA stops flying space shuttle missions next year. Until private spaceships are available, NASA will have to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to space.

SpaceX plans to fly at least 12 unmanned missions to ferry supplies to the International Space Station. And, while the Dragon capsule is not yet man-rated to carry human passengers into space, the company ultimately aims to win a contract to fly astronauts to the station as well.

Building a launch escape system -- a device that would enable astronauts to jettison from the rocket if an emergency were to occur during liftoff -- is one of the main challenges in man-rating Dragon to carry humans.

Space.com contributed to this report.