The privately-owned US firm SpaceX launched a rocket on its first test flight Friday, in what observers say is a milestone for the space industry and in the race to develop commercial carriers.
The Falcon 9 rocket blasted off at 2:35 pm (1835 GMT) from Cape Canaveral in Florida, shortly after aborting a first attempt just a few seconds before the launch, due to an automatic computer override of the system.
The first and second stage of the white, 180-foot (55-meter) tall rocket separated successfully, SpaceX said on its website. It was due to place the Dragon capsule, a mockup of the company’s spacecraft, into orbit.
“Regardless of the outcome, this first launch attempt represents a key milestone for both SpaceX and the commercial spaceflight industry,” the company said.
The launch represented a key test in developing commercial launchers capable of ferrying cargo and astronauts to the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).
President Barack Obama hopes the private sector will help fill the gap after the space shuttle fleet is grounded later this year, and before a new generation of spacecraft is developed.
Obama has proposed spending six billion dollars over five years to help the private sector develop reliable and affordable launchers to transport cargo and US astronauts to the International Space Station.
During the transition period, the United States will depend on Russian Soyuz rockets for access to the ISS.
The president visited SpaceX installations at Cape Canaveral during an April visit to the Kennedy Space Center.
SpaceX leaders emphasized that the launch was just the first in a series of test flights.
“It would be a great day if we reach orbital velocity, but still a good day if the first stage functions correctly, even if the second stage malfunctions,” the company said.
NASA has already signed contracts with SpaceX — or Space Exploration Technologies Corporation — a start-up founded eight years ago by multimillionaire Elon Musk, who made his fortune by helping found and eventually sell online pay system PayPal.
The NASA contracts, signed in late 2008 and worth 3.1 billion dollars, are to deliver cargo to the ISS between 2011 and 2016.
NASA has also signed contracts with another company, Orbital Sciences Corp. Its Taurus II rocket is set for its first flight in 2011.
SpaceX and other upstarts would be up against industry giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which together operate United Launch Alliance (ULA), whose stable includes Atlas V and Delta 4 rockets that have logged considerable flight hours.