It didn't go off without a hitch — although what hitch there was the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster's computers handled deftly as it blasted a cargo-laden Dragon capsule toward the International Space Station last night.
Something went wrong with one engine, but the Falcon 9 was able to adjust in flight and continue the mission. According to SpaceX, the Falcon 9 is the only rocket currently flying that can do this.
Also, it looks extremely cool when launching at night in Florida (see above).
This is the first of 12 missions that SpaceX will undertake, to resupply the ISS in the wake of the cessation of Space Shuttle flights. The Hawthorne-based startup — whose CEO, Elon Musk, also runs electric carmaker Tesla — proved earlier this year that it could launch a capsule, rendezvous with the ISS, and return cargo to Earth via the old-school splashdown route.
The total contract that SpaceX has with NASA is $1.6 billion. If there are not any additional hitches, Dragon should head back to the Pacific on October 28.
What is important here is that we've officially entered the realm of commercial space. So far, SpaceX is the only private company that has been able to plan and execute the feat of low-earth-orbit operations formerly handled by governments. If it continues to be able to execute, it will secure a compelling lock on one of the more lucrative aspects of space: Working for NASA.
Why so lucrative — isn't SpaceX offering to do missions at much lower cost that what was previously common?
Yes, but the company is also going for the satellite-launching market. And proving that it can reliably do high-pressure NASA missions only enhances its profile to hurl spaceward cargo that doesn't contain stuff that astronauts need.