SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket Sunday night from Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:35 p.m. SpaceX is sending its Dragon capsule to a rendezvouz with the ISS. NASA-TV video. 10-7-12. Video thumbnail photo by Rik Jesse, FLORIDA TODAY
by James Dean, FLORIDA TODAY
CAPE CANAVERAL - A private spacecraft is on its way to resupply the International Space Station for the first time, opening a new era for NASA and the commercial spaceflight industry.
SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsule blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 8:35 p.m. tonight, lighting the night sky with an orange glow as it roared northeast over the Atlantic Ocean.
The unmanned Dragon spacecraft separated from the rocket in what SpaceX called a "picture-perfect" orbit to start a roughly two-day flight to the station, where three astronauts and cosmonauts await its arrival.
"We are right where we need to be at this stage in the mission," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a statement after the launch. "We still have a lot of work to do, of course, as we guide Dragon's approach to the space station. But the launch was an unqualified success."
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said later that one of the rocket's nine first-stage Merlin engines apparently shut down prematurely, but the anomaly did not affect the flight. A video showed debris falling from the bottom of the rocket 80 seconds into flight, but it wasn't immediately clear if it was related to the engine problem.
The launch made real a concept first proposed in 2004, when NASA announced plans to retire the shuttle after completing the space station and to rely on commercial vehicles to ship cargo to the outpost.
NASA in 2006 picked SpaceX for a program that helped develop and test its new rocket and spacecraft, and in 2008 awarded the company a $1.6 billion contract for 12 commercial resupply missions.
The Dragon's successful test run to the station in May this year paved the way for contracted missions to begin.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden called Sunday's launch "a historical event in the annals of spaceflight."
"This was a critical event for NASA and the nation tonight," Bolden said at Kennedy. "We are once again launching spacecraft from American soil with the supplies our astronauts need in space."
The Dragon is carrying about 1,000 pounds of food and crew supplies, spare parts and science experiments, and is expected to return late this month with twice as much cargo.
A freezer used to store biological samples won attention for its more palatable payload on the ride up: cups of vanilla and swirled chocolate ice cream for a microgravity treat.
On its way to the station, SpaceX won't need to repeat many of the communications tests it performed back in May, having proven those systems work.
"This time we'll be driving right to station," said Shotwell.
The capsule is due to arrive near the station early Wednesday and be grappled by a robotic arm around 7:30 a.m.
NASA reported that the station crew - which passed over Cape Canaveral about an hour before the launch - watched a video feed of the flight.
Said station commander Suni Williams: "We are ready to grab Dragon."
Williams and Aki Hoshide will steer the 58-foot arm that performs the grab and attaches Dragon to a docking port.
The Dragon is tentatively scheduled to depart the station Oct. 28, a few days after three more crew members arrive on a Russian spacecraft.
While beginning its first contracted cargo mission, SpaceX is one of several companies competing to launch NASA astronauts to the station by 2017. The U.S. now relies on Russia to fly its astronauts.
Bolden said Sunday's launch helped strengthen the case for flying crews commercially, too.
"Every time they have successful mission, then that gives the non-believers one more opportunity to get on board and root for us and help us make this thing happen that we know can happen," he said. "This was a big night."