The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared successfully into the sky from Cape Canaveral this morning, carrying a stubby spacecraft called Dragon. Three hours later, Dragon splashed down in the Pacific Ocean -- the first privately-owned ship ever to return safely from earth orbit.
"It was just mind-blowingly awesome," said Elon Musk, the Internet entrepreneur who founded SpaceX with money he made from the sale of PayPal.
Amid the plaudits -- Bill Nye, the head of the Planetary Society, said, "Falcon 9 nailed it!" -- there was a humbling reality: SpaceX managed to replicate a feat NASA's Mercury program first accomplished back in 1961. But today's NASA, searching for a clear mission and worried about its budget in a tough economy, badly needs for companies like SpaceX to succeed.
If everything goes well, cargo ships like the Dragon will take the place of NASA's own ships in ferrying supplies to and from the International Space Station. Private enterprise, it's been argued, can do the job more cheaply and efficiently than government, with its layers of bureaucracy.
"If we overrun this program, we have to come up with the money through investment to cover the cost, which is dramatically different from contracts where if the contractor overruns, taxpayers have to pay the overruns," said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.
Eventually, SpaceX says it would like Dragon to be able to carry astronauts as well. The cone-shaped capsule is large enough, and the company is working on equipment to make it safe enough for human passengers.
It also has competitors, including such aerospace giants as Lockheed Martin, which has announced it hopes to fly the Orion capsule from NASA's now-cancelled Constellation project to send explorers to the moon and Mars.
Orbital Sciences Corp., which has been launching small satellites for more than 20 years, is in the hunt too; it plans to launch its new Taurus 4 rocket next year.
Today's launch looked like many that have left from Cape Canaveral since the dawn of the space age. The cylindrical Falcon booster lifted off into a clear sky from Launch Complex 40, which had been built for military rockets in the 1960s and has been heavily modified since.
It rose quickly, headed out over the Atlantic Ocean, and soon dwindled to a bright dot. After three minutes it dropped off its first stage, and SpaceX said it reached orbit nine minutes after liftoff.
Applause quickly came from high above -- from the crew of the space station, orbiting at an altitude of 200 miles. "My congratulations to the SpaceX team and good luck," said station commander Scott Kelly, who has been living in space since October.
If SpaceX has more successful tests, it says it could start making trips to the space station in three years. Privately-launched supply ships would free up NASA to follow President Obama's orders, developing more advanced technologies to take astronauts to an asteroid in the 2020s, and perhaps Mars in the decade after that.
"While rocket launches from the Cape are considered a common occurrence, the historic significance of today's achievement by SpaceX should not be lost," said NASA administrator Charles Bolden after the flight.
Bolden said Dragon's flight "shows how government and industry can leverage expertise and resources to foster a new and vibrant space economy.
"These new explorers are to spaceflight what Lindbergh was to commercial aviation."