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Falcon 9 rockets into space in dramatic maiden flight

Powered by nine first-stage engines and the vision of an Internet entrepreneur, an untried Falcon 9 rocket streaks into space in a major milestone for commercial space industry.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--Powered by 10 engines and the vision of an Internet entrepreneur, an untried Falcon 9 rocket blasted off Friday and successfully boosted a dummy payload into orbit on a maiden voyage intended to help pave the way for commercial missions to the International Space Station.

In a major milestone for the commercial launch industry, the two-stage Falcon 9's nine first-stage Merlin engines, fueled by liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene rocket fuel, roared to life at 2:45 p.m. EDT.

The first Falcon 9 rocket climbs away from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Ben Cooper/Spaceflight Now

After computer checks to verify engine performance, four hydraulic hold-down clamps pulled away and the 157-foot-tall Falcon 9, riding atop a torrent of orange flame, climbed away from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Liftoff came 3 hours and 45 minutes into a four-hour launch window because of tests conducted on the rocket's self-destruct system, a sailboat in the off-shore danger zone, and a last-second abort because of a higher-than-expected pressure reading with one of the engines.

Engineers with the Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, recycled the countdown to the T-minus 15-minute mark and decided to try again after concluding the engine was in good shape. This time, the countdown proceeded to zero without incident.

The initial stages of the ascent appeared normal as the rocket climbed straight up and then arced away to the northeast on a trajectory tilted 34.5 degrees to the equator.

Cameras mounted on the rocket provided spectacular views looking back toward Earth, showing shutdown and separation of the spent first stage and ignition of the second stage's single Merlin engine, its nozzle glowing bright orange from the heat of the exhaust. The second stage began an initially slow roll midway through the burn that became more and more pronounced as the rocket climbed.

By the time the second stage engine shut down, the roll was more rapid than is typically seen with large rockets. But in an evening teleconference with reporters, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the second stage engine shut down on time, putting the rocket's dummy payload, a structural test article representing the company's planned Dragon space station cargo module, into its intended 155-mile-high orbit.

"When the rocket achieved orbit, there was tremendous relief and elation at SpaceX," Musk said. "People have really put so much blood, sweat, and tears into Falcon 9 and bringing that to launch...Things were extremely tense here, everybody was glued to the monitors looking at the data streams and the video as I was. And then just a huge elation and relief that it reached orbit and we achieved 100 percent of the objectives on the mission."

The Falcon 9 arcs away to the northeast during the first stage of its maiden voyage. Ben Cooper/Spaceflight Now

Musk said the second stage rolled more than expected and that engineers would look into the issue to make sure it was not an indicator of a more serious problem. But he said the roll did not affect the rocket's overall performance.

"This has really been a fantastic day," he said. "We put our Falcon 9 rocket [in] orbit, it achieved a near bull's-eye on the target. We would have been excited even to have the first stage work, or get some of the way through the second stage burn. As I said before, it would be a great day if we got to orbit. And thankfully, it has been a great day."

He said the successful launching "bodes very well" for President Obama's proposed shift in national space priorities, turning launches to low-Earth orbit over to the private sector while NASA focuses on deep space exploration.

"It really helps vindicate the approach that he's taking and it shows that a small, new company like SpaceX can make a real difference," Musk said. "We look forward to the (next Falcon 9) launch that's going to come up soon when we will be carrying an active version of our Dragon spacecraft, getting to the space station next year, and hopefully launching astronauts as well as soon as possible."

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden congratulated Musk on the flight, saying the accomplishment "is an important milestone in the commercial transportation effort and puts the company a step closer to providing cargo services to the International Space Station."

"This launch of the Falcon 9 gives us even more confidence that a resupply vehicle will be available after the space shuttle fleet is retired," Bolden said.

SpaceX is building the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo modules to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and to bring equipment and experiment samples back to Earth. The initial test flight Friday was funded by SpaceX, but the company plans three subsequent test flights under a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, contract with NASA.

Following the demonstration flights, SpaceX hopes to begin space station resupply missions under a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Service contract covering 12 fights.

Orbital Sciences also is developing an unmanned cargo craft under NASA's COTS/CRS program that is expected to fly next year. But SpaceX has generated most of the commercial space publicity in the wake of the Obama administration's proposed shift to commercial rockets for station resupply and, eventually, crew transport to low-Earth orbit.

Musk said the success of the first Falcon 9 launch gave the company a "huge boost of confidence, really."

"We're really at the dawn of a new era," he said. "You had the sort of Apollo era, the space shuttle era--and those were government eras. And the government will continue to play a significant role in the future. But I think what you're really seeing is the rise of commercial as well, in many ways a partnership with government.

"I don't think we could have gotten this far without NASA," he said. "But this heralds a point at which space becomes a combined commercial and government endeavor, with commercial playing an increasingly significant role."

Updated at 3:45 p.m. PDT: Adding news conference, quotes, and details.