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With SpaceX launch, more than cargo is riding on space station mission (+video)

The Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule are the bread and butter of SpaceX, which hopes for more contracts with NASA and others to ferry things – and people – to and from space.

By Staff writer / May 22, 2012

The Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from space launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., early Tuesday, May 22. This launch marks the first time, a private company sends its own rocket to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.

John Raoux/AP

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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, topped with the company's Dragon spacecraft, is now three for three after a flawless launch in the predawn hours Tuesday morning.

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Coming after two previous successful test launches in 2010, Tuesday's historic mission to the International Space Station marks the first time a commercial company has sent a craft to dock with the orbiting outpost. If all goes well, this mission marks the end of the demonstration phase under a $1.6 billion contract the company has with NASA to resupply the space station.

Tuesday's launch at 3:44 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, was the second try for this mission. The first attempt on May 19 ended a half-second after the engines ignited. A flight-control computer on board the rocket shut off the engines just before lift-off when sensors reported too much pressure in one engine's combustion chamber. Technicians traced the problem to a faulty valve, which they replaced over the weekend.

Once Dragon reached orbit and extended its solar arrays Tuesday morning – a first for the craft – it was cheers, hugs, and high-fives at SpaceX's launch control facility at the Cape as well as at mission control at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. Later, sensors crucial to the craft's navigation to and around the space station were exposed to space for the first time and were functioning as designed.

“Anything could have gone wrong, but everything went right,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder and chief designer, referring to the solar-panel deployment during a post-launch press briefing. “There is so much hope riding on that rocket.”

The Falcon 9 is the company's bread and butter. Even before Tuesday's launch, SpaceX had about $4 billion worth of launch contracts in hand through 2017. Sixty percent of the value of those contracts comes from customers other than NASA. The Falcon 9/Dragon package also serves as the foundation for the company's ambitions to contract with NASA to ferry crews to and from the space station.

When the initial stages of the mission came off without a hitch, “people saw their handiwork in space operating as it should,” Mr. Musk said, and the emotions flowed. “For us it's like winning the Super Bowl.”

The experienced hands at NASA were just as impressed with the performance as the young Turks they mentored.

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