A privately financed company launched a rocket of its own design successfully into orbit on Sunday night, ushering in what the company’s founders hope will be a new era of spaceflight.
It was the fourth launching attempt by the company, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, which was founded by Elon Musk, an Internet entrepreneur born in South Africa.
“We’ve made orbit!” Mr. Musk exclaimed to his employees at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., proclaiming the moment “awesome.”
“There were a lot of people who thought we couldn’t do it — a lot, actually,” he said after thanking his employees. “But, you know, the saying goes, fourth time’s the charm.”
Mr. Musk, 37, founded SpaceX in 2002 after selling the online payment company he helped found, PayPal, to eBay for $1.5 billion.
SpaceX, which has more than 500 employees, captured one of the most coveted prizes of the new space industry: a commercial orbital transportation services contract worth as much as $100 million. Known by its acronym, Cots, the program encourages private-sector alternatives to the space shuttle.
The company is developing a larger rocket, the Falcon 9, to provide cargo services to the International Space Station for NASA after the shuttle program winds down in 2010. The company also hopes to adapt its technology to carry people to the station, which could help bridge the gap until the debut of the next generation of NASA spacecraft, planned for 2015.
“This is just the first step in many,” Mr. Musk told his team.
His relief was obvious. The first three efforts by SpaceX had ended in failure. The first, in March 2006, failed about a minute into the ascent because of a fuel line leak. A second rocket, launched in March 2007, made it to space but was lost about five minutes after launching.
In the most recent flight, on Aug. 2, mission control lost contact with the craft shortly after the separation of the first stage. That third flight carried three small satellites for NASA and the Defense Department, as well as small amounts of the cremated remains of 200 people, including Gordon Cooper, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, and James Doohan, who played the character Montgomery Scott on the original “Star Trek” television series.
Engineers identified the problem as a small amount of residual thrust from the first stage after the engine was cut off; the first stage rear-ended the second after separation. Mr. Musk said the company had fixed the problem by telling the rocket to wait a few more seconds after cut-off before jettisoning the first stage, a change that required rewriting a single line of computer code.
This time around, SpaceX took no chances with a customer’s payload and instead launched what it called a payload mass simulator — a 364-pound weight — from the Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean at 7:16 p.m., Eastern time.
Those at headquarters cheered lustily at the launching, and even more so when the first and second stages separated successfully on live video that was also shown on the company’s Web site, spacex.com. There was a long moment of concern as mission control lost contact with the craft as it neared orbital velocity, its engine nozzle glowing bright red. But the image reappeared, and the cheers resumed.
In a news conference after the launching, Mr. Musk told reporters, “It’s great to have this giant monkey off my back.”
6 months ago