SpaceX launches era of commercial cargo missions for NASA

A few months ago we were given the opportunity to witness a test flight of SpaceX's mission to the International Space Station (ISS). After a high-profile aborted attempt, the spacecraft finally launched. But that was just the dress rehearsal. Last night the real future of NASA began.

Launching from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 8:35 p.m. Eastern Time, the Falcon 9 rocket lifted the Dragon spacecraft skyward for the first commercially-supported NASA resupply mission to the ISS. The mission is the first of 12 scheduled to take place through 2016. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, "The SpaceX launch tonight marks the official start of commercial resupply missions by American companies operating out of U.S. spaceports like the one right here in Florida."

The Dragon spacecraft, which is carrying crew supplies and scientific research materials, is due to berth with the ISS on Wednesday and will remain attached for 18 days, after which it will return to Earth near the coast of California. You can see the historic launch of the SpaceX spacecraft in the video below.

Update: While SpaceX's launch was successful, it didn't go off without a hitch. The spaceflight company has released a video where, about half a minute in, what looks like an engine failure causes an explosion and a shower of debris. From Ars Technica's John Timmer:

"The Falcon 9, as its name implies, has nine engines, and is designed to go to orbit if one of them fails. On-board computers will detect engine failure, cut the fuel supply, and then distribute the unused propellant to the remaining engines, allowing them to burn longer. This seems to be the case where that was required, and the computers came through. The engines are also built with protection to limit the damage in cases where a neighboring engine explodes, which appears to be the case here."


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