Space Exploration Technologies launched an unmanned craft to begin regular cargo deliveries to the International Space Station, becoming the first company to provide space supply services to the U.S. government.
The company, known as SpaceX and controlled by billionaire Elon Musk, launched its Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon capsule at 8:35 p.m. local time Sunday from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The capsule separated from the rocket and reached orbit about 10 minutes after liftoff.
SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, Calif., has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA for at least a dozen resupply missions. The agency is relying on companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., based in Dulles, Va., to do the work after retiring its shuttle fleet last year.
"Falcon 9 rocket booster has delivered Dragon to its target orbit!" Musk tweeted after the launch.
In a test mission, SpaceX on May 25 became the first company to dock a commercial craft at the station.
The supply ship is carrying about 1,000 pounds of cargo, including materials for scientific experiments aboard the station. After a three-day journey through space, it will arrive at the station for a two-week visit.
The bullet-shaped capsule will return to Earth with twice as much gear when it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California. It's designed to bring back a significant amount of experiments, unlike others developed by Orbital and the governments of Europe, Japan and Russia.
"Just over one year after the retirement of the space shuttle, we have returned space station cargo resupply missions to U.S. soil," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement Sunday night.
SpaceX is also building a manned version of its Dragon spacecraft with help from NASA. The United States depends on Russia for transporting crew to the station at a cost of about $63 million per seat aboard Soyuz spacecraft.
The agency in August awarded three companies $1.11 billion to develop spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts. SpaceX won $440 million, Chicago-based Boeing Co. received $460 million and Sparks, Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corp. got $213 million.
SpaceX plans to launch an orbital flight with astronauts "in about three years," Musk said Oct. 5 during a news conference NASA broadcast on its website, "and to actually take astronauts to the space station in about four years."