SpaceX has made history. Its privately developed rocket has made it into space.
After three failed launches, the company founded by Elon Musk worked all of the bugs out of their Falcon 1 launch vehicles.
The entire spectacle was broadcast live from Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. Cameras mounted on the spacecraft showed our planet shrinking in the distance and the empty first stage engine falling back to Earth.
As the rocket ascended, cheers rang out during every crucial step of the launch sequence, and at the final stage their headquarters in Hawthorne, California erupted in excitement. (Wired.com viewed the launch over the Internet on SpaceX's live webcast.)
The tensest moment came just before stage separation. At that critical juncture, the third launch attempt had failed. This time, it worked out perfectly.
Eight minutes after leaving the ground, Falcon 1 reached a speed of 5200 meters per second and passed above the International Space Station.
"I don't know what to say... because my mind is just blown," said Musk, during a brief address to his staff after the successful launch. "This is just the first step of many."
The feat is a giant leap forward for privately-funded space ventures, and follows the spectacular 2004 suborbital flight of SpaceShipOne. (See related Wired Science story: "Space Visionaries Prove Naysayers Wrong - Again".)
Musk seemed almost overcome with emotion. In the coming years, his company will try to make space transportation ten times cheaper and more reliable.
After making a fortune as the co-founder of PayPal, he recruited some of the best aerospace engineers in the world and challenged them to build a launch vehicle from scratch.
SpaceX had scrubbed its fourth launch attempt just a week earlier to swap out a liquid oxygen feed line, signaling the extreme caution of the group after three failed tries.
Falcon 1's first flight in 2006 lasted less than a minute, the second flight in 2007 fired for 7.5 minutes, and the third flight last month encountered a staging separation anomaly just shy of three minutes.
The team's analysis of Flight 3 suggested they didn't wait long enough after the first-stage engine was done firing to separate it from the second stage.
The recently beefed-up, first-stage Merlin engine had more kick in it than the previous version of the engine, and after separation still had enough energy to run into the second stage above it, sending it tumbling off course.
The solution: add more of a delay after the first-stage engine stops firing before separation to ensure a clean break.
With Flight 4 under its belt, SpaceX is gearing up for additional launches in 2009. Flight 5 could fly as soon as January, Flight 6 parts are on order and Flight 7 production will begin in early 2009.
Falcon 1 is a two stage rocket powered by liquid oxygen enriched rocket-grade kerosene, using two engines designed by SpaceX itself.
The first stage carries a parachute and is designed to be recoverable, although this has not yet worked out in practice.
The second stage uses a single SpaceX-designed Kestrel engine, also fueled by a mixture of liquid oxygen and kerosene, but with a simpler design and significantly less power. It is not recoverable.
In addition to Falcon 1, SpaceX is planning a second model two-stage, Merlin-powered rocket known as Falcon 9. It is expected to cost $35 million USD, and is designed to boost 9,900 kg to low earth orbit, and 4,900 kg to geostationary transfer orbit. SpaceX is also planning a Falcon 9 Heavy model capable of carrying bigger payloads, and also a space craft with a pressurized cabin unit known as Dragon.
"We're going to get Falcon 9 to orbit next year," said Musk. "The future of SpaceX is really great."