SpaceX Launch: Supplies for NASA, and Maybe a New Era

NASA hopes private enterprise will succeed in space, let it go explore.

ByABC News
May 22, 2012, 11:54 AM

May 22, 2012 — -- intro: The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket safely launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station before dawn today, carrying a Dragon capsule with 1,000 pounds of supplies for the International Space Station -- and, much more important, the hopes for a new way of doing space travel.

"Falcon flew perfectly! Dragon in orbit, comm locked and solar arrays active!!" came a tweet from SpaceX's founder, Elon Musk. "Feels like a giant weight just came off my back."

The SpaceX launch was, in many ways, routine. It was an unmanned rocket taking off from Launch Complex 40, a pad NASA and the Air Force have used since the 1960s. If all goes well, it will make a rendezvous with the space station early Thursday morning, and if that's successful, the station astronauts will use their robot arm to pull the capsule in for docking on Friday.

The one major difference is that SpaceX is a private company. Until now, all flights to the space station have been made by the U.S., Russian or European space agencies. NASA hopes SpaceX and other commercial firms will take over the job previously done by American space shuttles and Russian Progress supply ships.

"Every launch into space is a thrilling event, but this one is especially exciting because it represents the potential of a new era in American spaceflight," said John Holdren, President Obama's assistant for science and technology. "This expanded role for the private sector will free up more of NASA's resources to do what NASA does best -- tackle the most demanding technological challenges in space, including those of human space flight beyond low Earth orbit."

Musk is part of a new breed of celestial aspirants -- entrepreneurs who made their fortunes here on Earth, and now look to the skies for new worlds to conquer.

There is a cynical saying sometimes used that you really can make a small fortune in space -- all you have to do is spend a large one. But Musk and his competitors argue that since they are not burdened by government bureaucracy, they can do cheaply what NASA has done expensively.

They say space could be a bit like the old West: Governments sent explorers, such as Columbus or Lewis and Clark, to open the frontier, and then private settlers followed.

Here is a list of some would-be space settlers and their projects:

quicklist: 1category: Millionaire Space Pioneerstitle: Elon Musk, SpaceXurl: text: What do you do if you've conquered the world and you're still young? You look for other worlds to conquer.

Elon Musk, now 40, made his fortune online. He co-founded PayPal, the popular system for sending money by email, in 1999, and sold it to eBay in 2002. The purchase price: $1.5 billion in stock. Musk owned about 12 percent of PayPal at the time.

It was not even his first company. In 1995 he dropped out of Stanford's graduate school to start Zip2, a firm that made software for publishing content on the Internet.

He began SpaceX in 2002, saying he believed humanity's future lay in space. The philosophy of his Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules, he told ABC News, was to keep it simple: "We're building trucks, not sports cars."

Several early launches failed. But in 2010, a SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket became the first liquid-fueled booster to put a satellite in Earth orbit as a private venture.

His principal client is now NASA. SpaceX hopes to carry cargo -- and eventually astronauts -- to the International Space Station, something NASA has been unable to do since the space shuttles were retired in 16371616 caption: userelated: