First commercial cargo flight heading to International Space Station

CNN Wire Service

The SpaceX rocket, the first commercial flight to the International Space Station, lifted off Sunday night carrying an unmanned cargo capsule.

The Falcon 9 rocket with its Dragon capsule launched on schedule at 8:35 p.m. ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with an orange blaze against the black night sky. About 10 minutes into the flight, the Dragon separated from the rocket and was on its way to the station.

Mission control called it “a picture-perfect launch and a flawless flight of Falcon.”

It is is the first of a dozen NASA-contracted flights to resupply the International Space Station, at a total cost of $1.6 billion.

“It’s a great evening,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell after the launch. “It’s just awesome.”

The launch comes nearly five months after a demonstration mission in which a Dragon capsule successfully berthed at the station and returned to Earth. Shotwell said the Sunday mission isn’t “substantially different” from that flight, “with the exception that we got there once.”

The unmanned capsule is packed with about 1,000 pounds of cargo — everything from low-sodium food kits to clothing and computer hard drives. It’s scheduled to return in late October with about 2,000 pounds of cargo, including scientific experiments and failed equipment that can be repaired and sent back, ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini said.

“These flights are critical to the space station’s sustainment and to begin full utilization of the space station for research and technology development,” he said.

The Dragon spacecraft is supposed to catch up with the space station early Wednesday. Station Commander Sunita Williams and Aki Hoshide from the Japanese Space Agency will use the robotic arm to grab Dragon and berth it to the station.

Much of Dragon’s cargo is material to support extensive experimentation aboard the space station. One deals with plant growth. Plants on Earth use about 50% of their energy for support to overcome gravity. Researchers want to understand how the genes that control that process would operate in microgravity — when objects are in free-fall in space. Down the road, that could benefit food supplies here on the planet.

The spacecraft is also carrying nearly two dozen microgravity experiments designed and being flown through the Student Experiment Spaceflight Program.

SpaceX is not the only commercial company in the spacefaring business. Within the next few months, Orbital Sciences is expected to fly its own demonstration flight to the space station. Instead of using Cape Canaveral as its launch site, the company’s rocket will take off from Wallops Island off the coast of Virginia.

Orbital has a nearly $2 billion contract with NASA for station resupply missions.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk is looking well beyond just these cargo flights to the station. SpaceX is one of three companies NASA has selected to continue work developing a human-rated spacecraft that would carry astronauts to the International Space Station.

Boeing and Sierra Nevada are the other two companies.

The SpaceX plan is to modify the Dragon capsule to carry people.

NASA Administror Charles Bolden praised Sunday’s launch as an example of private industry’s capability. By hiring private companies to conduct the resupply missions, he said, NASA can focus on exploring even deeper in the solar system, including missions to an asteroid and to Mars.