NASA on 'brink of a new future' with SpaceX launch

Morning liftoff sends U.S.'s first commercial mission to International Space Station

The nation's space efforts entered a new chapter today with the launch of the first commercial vehicle to the International Space Station.

In its second liftoff attempt, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. launched its Falcon 9 rocket at 3:44 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rocket delivered the Dragon cargo capsule into orbit, where it's scheduled to rendezvous with the space station in three days.

The successful liftoff comes just three days after the company's first scheduled launch was aborted at the very last second.

This launch was historic because it was the first commercial flight from the U.S. to the space station since NASA's fleet of space shuttles was retired in the summer of 2011.

Without the shuttles to ferry astronauts and cargo back and forth to the space station, NASA is focused on exploring space by hiring commercial companies to in essence build space taxis.

"We're now back on the brink of a new future, a future that embraces the innovation the private sector brings to the table," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement today. "The significance of this day cannot be overstated. While there is a lot of work ahead to successfully complete this mission, we are off to a good start."

The Dragon cargo capsule is carrying about 1,200 pounds of supplies for the station, along with student-designed experiments, according to NASA. The space agency also noted that the spacecraft can hold 7,300 pounds of cargo, but since this is a test flight, cargo was limited to important-but-not critical materials. Most of the supplies being carried are food and clothing.

Now that the capsule is in orbit, scientists will perform a series of navigation, communications and propulsion tests before it is allowed to closely approach the space station.

Once the capsule does so, astronauts on board the station will grab it with a robotic arm and attach it to the outside of the orbiter.

The Dragon is scheduled to remain attached to the space station for three weeks so astronauts can unload it and then reload it with used scientific equipment. Astronauts will then use a robotic arm to unattach the capsule and release it back into orbit.

"There's still a thousand things that have to go right, but we are looking forward to this exciting mission," said Alan Lindemoyer, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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