Private rocket launch a success

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. —What could be a new era in spaceflight dawned Friday with the successful launch of a new private rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Falcon 9 — the gleaming white, 180-foot-tall flagship rocket of commercial upstart SpaceX — lifted off its launch pad at 1:45 p.m. CDT and soared into partly cloudy skies, riding a trail of fire from its nine Merlin engines. An earlier attempt had aborted with two seconds on the countdown clock because of a problem with a gas generator that feeds fuel to the first-stage engines.

SpaceX employees watching the launch cheered and jumped for joy.

"It's a great day for SpaceX and a great day for the future of the commercial space industry," said SpaceX vice president Larry Williams. "It was beautiful. Simply gorgeous."

A successful launch on Falcon 9's first test flight was almost unprecedented; SpaceX founder Elon Musk on Thursday had given the rocket a 70 to 80 percent chance of success.

Even some Kennedy Space Center employees applauded the rocket that's supposed to replace the space shuttle to haul cargo — and perhaps people — to the International Space Station.

"Things are going to get really interesting now," one KSC employee said, referring to the push to get the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to outsource more spaceflights to private companies like SpaceX.

Falcon 9, which cost $400 million to develop, according to Musk, is a major contender to assume NASA's responsibilities for servicing the space station after the retirement of the space shuttle. President Obama wants to cancel the Constellation moon-rocket program and outsource travel to the space station to private businesses.

The company has a $1.6 billion NASA contract for 12 flights to transport cargo to the space station, beginning in 2012, presuming Falcon 9 can win flight-safety certification.

The lift-off — after the first attempt was aborted — was a testimony to the flexibility and simplicity Musk and his team built into the launch procedures.

SpaceX engineers were able to analyze the problem — low helium pressure in one of the gas generators that pump fuel to the engines — and ready a second attempt in just an hour, an almost unprecedented turnaround.