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Private rocket achieves orbit, paving the way for cheaper citizen space travel

A company developing its own rocket finally got its ship into orbit, taking the private sector a step closer to low-cost space travel.

A Falcon 1 rocket lifted off at 4:15 P.M. Pacific time (11:15 Universal) yesterday from the Reagan Test Site on Omelek Island in the central Pacific, about 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) southwest of Hawaii, according to a press release from the company, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). It was the fourth time that SpaceX—the brainchild of PayPal co-founder Elon Musk—tried lifting a payload into orbit.

"We've made orbit!" declared Musk, according to The New York Times. "There were a lot of people who thought we couldn't do it—a lot, actually. But, you know, the saying goes, fourth time's the charm."

SpaceX managed to get a Falcon 1 off the ground in August, but it was lost just over two minutes later when its two liquid-fuel rocket stages failed to separate successfully. Three government satellites and the remains of Star Trek actor James Doohan (aka Scotty) and Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper disappeared on that flight.

Two previous attempts were plagued by a leaky fuel line and a premature shutdown by the second-stage rocket, respectively, the Associated Press notes.

The Falcon 1 is carrying a 364-pound (165-kilogram) dummy payload. Its first stage hasn't been recovered from the ocean, but the second could stay in orbit for five to 10 years, company spokeswoman Diane Murphy tells us.

The company is under a $278-million commercial orbital transportation services (COTS) agreement with NASA to demonstrate that its bigger rocket, the Falcon 9, and its Dragon capsule can transport cargo to the space station and dock there, Murphy says. (COTS allows NASA to partner with private companies that are developing space-related technology.) Yesterday's launch of the Falcon 1, which is designed to transport satellites into low Earth orbit, is not part of that agreement; the maiden flight of the Falcon 9 is scheduled for the second quarter of next year.

If all goes well, the Falcon 9 and Dragon may eventually take equipment, supplies and possibly astronauts to the space station after NASA retires its shuttle fleet in 2010. NASA's next-gen fleet won't be ready until at least 2015.

SpaceX has already sold over a dozen trips to the government and private industry that ranged in price from $7.9 million to $9.1 million.

(Launch of the Falcon 1 Flight 4 vehicle/Courtesy of SpaceX)

 

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