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Blast-off! Why SpaceX and Falcon 9 can pull off what NASA won't do alone

On Friday morning, after several false starts, the Falcon 9 rocket was successfully launched from the Kennedy Space Center. The Falcon 9 has been developed privately by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, with a large subsidy from NASA.

By Matthew Shaer / June 4, 2010

President Barack Obama and Elon Musk tour the SpaceX launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in April. Musk is the CEO of SpaceX, the company behind the Falcon 9 rocket.

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After several hours of technical difficulties, the Falcon 9 rocket – built by Elon Musk's SpaceX start-up – successfully launched from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. If the nine-engine rocket passes this initial test, it could become a vital part of the space program for years to come, eventually ferrying cargo – and maybe even astronauts – up to the International Space Station.

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SpaceX had given the Falcon 9 a four-hour launch window – from 8 a.m. to noon Pacific time. The Falcon 9 team seemed to run into problems from the start. At around 8:30 in the morning, the launch was put on hold for a short time. At 10:40 AM, the launch was again temporarily delayed. And then, at 11:45 AM, the Falcon 9 blasted off successfully.

The Falcon 9 rocket was built by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, a company run by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk. SpaceX has been liberally funded by NASA – to the tune of $1.6 billion – in a public/private partnership that many analysts think could become the future of space flight. Over the next few years, SpaceX is expected to provide NASA with 12 cargo deliveries to the International Space Station.

On today's test flight, the Falcon 9 carried dummy cargo. SpaceX has said that the Falcon 9 will use a three-minute burn of its first stage to reach a circular low-earth orbit; from there, the rocket will commence a second-stage burn.

“This is very much a test flight of Falcon 9,” Musk said recently in a conference call with reporters. “It’s analogous to beta testing of a new technology.... It’ll be considered a good day if even the first stage functions correctly. It’ll be a great day if both stages function correctly."

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