Commercial Rocket Soars Into Orbit
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Feeling pressure to perform on a mission deemed key to President Barack Obama's controversial space plan, SpaceX scored a bull's-eye Friday on the first flight of its Falcon 9 rocket.
Nine powerful first-stage engines ignited in a billowing cloud of smoke, propelling the rocket on a spot-on trajectory over the Atlantic Ocean and into an orbit 155 miles above Earth's surface.
Rolling thunder rippled across Florida marshlands, triggering loud exuberant cheers and joyful jumps from spectators around Florida's Space Coast.
"What a show!" the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said in a tweet.
The Falcon 9 roared into a new epoch in space travel, one in which commercial companies - rather than NASA - operate fleets that fly cargo and astronaut crews to and from the International Space Station.
Obama laid out the plan in his proposed 2011 budget, and reiterated it during a trip to Kennedy Space Center in April - one in which he made a telling side trip to meet SpaceX founder Elon Musk at the Falcon 9 launch site.
"I think it's is the dawn of a new era in space exploration, I think a very exciting era, and one which I think will lead to the democratization of space, making space accessible to everyone eventually," Musk said after Friday's launch.
"I think this bodes very well for the Obama plan. It really helps vindicate the approach that he's taking - that even a small company like SpaceX can make a real difference."
The history books will show that the Falcon 9 first took flight at 2:45 p.m. EDT, lifting off at Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Trouble syncing the rocket up with range safety radars delayed a planned 11 a.m. launch. Surveillance systems detected what might have been a stray boat in the launch danger zone off the coast.
Those problems were cleared. The countdown resumed, and just before clocks reached zero, a sensor detected higher-than-normal pressure within one of the rocket's 9 first-stage engines. Computers automatically shut down the show.
Engineers quickly determined that slightly higher-pressure levels would be allowable in the engine. Computer software was tweaked, controllers jump-started the countdown and then the Falcon 9 set sail.
SpaceX's Emily Shanklin leapt up and down on the observation deck of a building at Kennedy Space Center. She shrieked like a whistling teapot letting off steam.
After all, the Falcon 9 launch was widely perceived as a make-or-break mission for the commercial launch industry. It seemed as if Obama's space plan was riding on the launch.
"We've been under a lot of pressure. A lot of people have been focusing on this flight and thinking of it as an all-or-nothing kind of thing," Shanklin said.
"We always knew that it wasn't. But just having the success today, I think it alleviates a lot of pressure. It sort of proves out a lot of the work that we've done."
Musk would agree.
"It should give a huge boost to the commercial space industry ... and it bodes well for the future of commercial spaceflight," he said. Next launch for SpaceX: a Falcon 9 demonstration mission for NASA later this summer. Probably late July or August.
But first, a thorough review of all data beamed back from the rocket during flight. Preliminary data shows the first stage broke up as it fell toward the Atlantis Ocean. So it won't be recovered intact.
The second stage appeared to perform pretty much as intended, and data from aerodynamic sensors on the rocket's payload -- a Dragon spacecraft test article -- will be scoured.
"We'll be pouring over the data right away, and I think we'll probably have it fully digested in about a month or so," Musk said.
"But certainly tonight, we're going to have a good time, drink a few margaritas, maybe more than a few. And definitely celebrate. It's been a great day, and I couldn't think of a better reason to have a party."