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We Have Liftoff: SpaceX Launches Test Spacecraft

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off Wednesday from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
John Raoux
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off Wednesday from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

A company called SpaceX provided a peek Wednesday into the future of the American space program. The company's rocket, Falcon 9, lifted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying a space capsule called Dragon. After orbiting the Earth twice, the Dragon capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

In the future, the Dragon -- or something very like it -- is intended to carry supplies, and ultimately astronauts, to the International Space Station, taking over the role of NASA's space shuttle.

Once the last shuttle is retired next year, NASA plans to rely on private companies to take cargo and ultimately astronauts into space. To encourage companies to get onboard, the agency decided to try something new: Instead of the aerospace giants, NASA invited in smaller, entrepreneurial companies to propose new launch systems.

New Partnership Model

At a news conference earlier this week, Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX, explained how her company was able to go from discussions to a launch in just four years.

"We don't have to do the 'mother may I' cycle with a huge number of organizations," she said. "We basically have a set of performance requirements that we have to hit."

Shotwell said the new partnership model also has benefits to taxpayers.

"If we overrun this program, we have to come up with the money through investment to cover the cost -- which is dramatically different from taxpayers funding cost-type contracts," she said.

In cost-type contracts, the taxpayers are on the hook for overruns.

Wednesday's launch was the first time any private company has tried to put a space capsule into orbit and bring it safely back to Earth. At the prelaunch news conference, NASA's Phil McAlister took pains to remind reporters that Wednesday's launch was part of a test program.

"Spaceflight is very, very difficult," he said. "And if history is any guide, there is undoubtedly going to be some anomalies as we go through the test program."

A Milestone

But on a beautiful, sunny Wednesday morning in Florida, the countdown appeared to be going swimmingly.

And then, trouble: Slightly less than three minutes before liftoff, telemetry indicated a problem with a launch safety system. Turns out, the telemetry was faulty -- not the safety system. So the SpaceX launch team regrouped and tried again. This time, there were no hitches.

Falcon 9 climbed through the blue sky and wispy clouds over the launchpad. As the flight progressed, the word "nominal" was used a lot -- meaning nothing's happening beside what's expected. After nine minutes, the second state engine shut down.

On this flight, the Dragon capsule had no cargo -- just the navigation and maneuvering systems it will use in the future. Three and a half hours after liftoff, the Dragon capsule landed safely in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said Wednesday's launch was a milestone in the history of spaceflight.

"Not because it represents anything that we haven't done before," Bolden says. "But it represents the entry of commercial entities, nongovernment entities, into access to space."

And for now, that's the direction the American space program is going.

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Joe Palca
Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. From 2011 to 2020 he produced stories that explored the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors as part of his series, Joe's Big Idea. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
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