The SpaceX Falcon 9 test rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, May 22, 2012.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 test rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, May 22, 2012.

WASHINGTON - The private U.S. company Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket and reusable Dragon space capsule from Cape Canaveral in Florida before dawn Tuesday.

NASA Blastoff Countdown

"Three, two, one, zero and launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, as NASA turns to the private sector to resupply the International Space Station," announced NASA launch commentator George Diller as the rocket, carrying the Dragon space capsule, soared into the dark sky, creating a blaze that made it look like a six-pointed star.

The unmanned Dragon capsule is heading to the International Space Station, an orbiting lab that zooms around the Earth at more than 32,000 kilometers per hour.  It is the first time a private spacecraft has attempted to catch up to the orbiting lab, a feat that has only been achieved by the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan.    

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden grinned as he spoke to journalists at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida after the successful launch.

"The significance of this day cannot be overstated," said Bolden.  "A private company has launched a spacecraft to the International Space Station that will attempt to dock there for the first time.  And, while there is a lot of work ahead to successfully complete this mission, we are certainly off to a good start, and I hope you would all agree on that."
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk watched the launch from company headquarters in California, and he spoke to reporters at a post-launch news conference at the Kennedy Space Center via video conference.  Musk said his adrenaline was pumping at launch time.  
"There is so much hope riding on that rocket, so when it worked and Dragon worked and the solar arrays deployed, people saw their handiwork in space and operating as it should. I mean it was tremendous elation," Musk said.  "I mean, it is like, I guess, for us, it is like winning the Super Bowl," he added, referring to the championship game of American pro football.

If all goes according to plan, the space station crew will use the station's robotic arm to capture the Dragon for docking on Friday.   

The Dragon is carrying more than 500 kilograms of cargo, including commemorative patches, clothing, meals and student experiments.  Nothing is considered critical to the space station's crew.  Astronauts will then load up Dragon with items they no longer need and, if all goes well, the space capsule will splash down in the Pacific Ocean, west of California, on May 31.  

NASA has invested more than $380 million in SpaceX's commercial cargo capabilities.  SpaceX has a $1.6 billion NASA contract to handle 12 missions to resupply the ISS.  SpaceX officials say those flights could begin later this year.

Tuesday's successful launch comes three days after a launch attempt was aborted at the last second when the flight computer detected slightly high pressure in an engine combustion chamber.  SpaceX engineers later discovered and replaced a faulty check valve.

The U.S. space agency is looking to private companies to handle low-Earth orbit transportation so NASA can focus on developing the next generation of spacecraft that can go to destinations beyond, such as asteroids or Mars.