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Commercial 'Dragon' Spacecraft Makes History

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, 08 Dec 2010

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, 08 Dec 2010

The Dragon spacecraft made history Wednesday when it became the first commercially made space capsule to ever launch into orbit, circle the world, and successfully re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. NASA's administrator heralded the achievement as a "dramatic step" toward safe, routine access to space.

About three hours after it blasted off on a Falcon 9 rocket and circled the Earth Wednesday, the Dragon capsule splashed down into the Pacific Ocean. Its landing was just 52 seconds later than its developers predicted from the outset, and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden emphasized that the historic mission was right on target.

"Just the launch is difficult enough, but successful launch, orbit and intact re-entry have been accomplished by only a few nations to date. The SpaceX mission today is the first time an entrepreneurial enterprise has joined this very elite company of space-faring entities," he said.

SpaceX is formally known as Space Exploration Technologies. The California-based company was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, who also founded Pay-Pal, an online payment service. Musk is the chief executive and the chief technology officer of SpaceX.

Looking the part of the young entrepreneur in a black SpaceX track suit jacket, the 39-year-old Musk often found himself at a loss for words during a news conference after the successful test flight.

"You know, I'm sort of in semi-shock. You know, I wish I could be more articulate at moments like this, but I think there is just sort of a natural reaction which kind blows my mind. It's hard to be articulate with a blown mind," he said.

And that makes sense, considering his company's reusable Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket demonstrated that private industry could create safe and reliable spacecraft.

To Bolden, it marked the dawn of a new era.

"These new explorers are to space flight what [Charles] Lindbergh was to commercial aviation," he said.

It was the first launch for Dragon, and it was also the first launch of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, program, which uses NASA funds to spur development of new spacecraft in the commercial sector.

SpaceX says the COTS program shows it is possible to return to the pace of space progress seen in the 1960s, while using a fraction of the resources.

Acting as an investor, NASA has invested $253 million toward the development of the Dragon and Falcon during the past four years. SpaceX says it has spent more than $600 million to develop the technology and equipment used in Wednesday's ground-breaking mission. And there is a reason people sometimes compare challenging mental activities to "rocket science." As Musk says, there is a lot that goes into building a rocket and spacecraft.

"They're both incredibly complex devices. There is so much that can go wrong, and it all went right. We didn't even have to go to any back-up systems or anything at any point," he said.

The Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft were designed to one day carry astronauts. Musk says they are not too far from that goal now.

"People sometimes think that the difference between, you know, to take a cargo spacecraft and put crew in it requires this enormous amount of magical pixie dust or something. This is not at all the case. If there had been people sitting in the Dragon capsule today, they would have had a very nice ride. And they would have experienced maybe up to four-and-half Gs [a unit of acceleration of a body falling under the influence of the Earth's gravitational pull ] -- about what you'd see at an amusement park. And they would have done quite well," he said.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden called Wednesday's demonstration an important milestone in meeting the objectives outlined by President Barack Obama and U.S. Congress, as the space agency moves its attentions beyond low-Earth-orbit in order to one day reach asteroids or Mars.

NASA has already awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract to fly 12 resupply missions to the International Space Station after the shuttle program ends next year.
Musk said he is highly confident that the Dragon can make it to the space station on its next flight, slated for next year.