After a handful of delays and one abort on the launch pad, SpaceX began its historic journey toward the International Space Station just before 4:00 a.m. eastern time this morning as its Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in a spectacular nighttime launch. The unmanned Dragon spacecraft aboard the Falcon 9 rocket successfully separated and deployed its solar arrays just minutes later after being delivered to its intended orbit by the second rocket stage. If a series of test maneuvers goes well over the next few days, the Dragon will become the first privately built spacecraft to dock with the ISS.
This morning’s launch marks the third consecutive successful launch of the Falcon 9 and it very well will may go down in history as the proper beginning of the era of private spaceflight. NASA has been working closely with SpaceX and other commercial spaceflight companies under its COTS program (for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) in an effort to replace the capability lost when the space shuttles retired with private carriers capable of servicing the ISS and other points in low Earth orbit.
As of this morning, the future of commercial space looks pretty bright. Right now, the Dragon capsule is slated to rendezvous with the ISS on May 25 (Friday), where it will dock for two weeks while astronauts aboard the station offload supplies carried by the Dragon and then fill it up with cargo destined for Earth. Dragon will then de-orbit, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean where it will hopefully be recovered intact and used again in the future.
The short video of this morning’s launch can be viewed immediately below. Those who want the longer countdown-through-stage-separation experience will find it just below that.