This story was updated at 10:46 p.m. ET.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A privately built rocket lit up the night sky over Florida Sunday (Oct. 7) to kick off the first-ever cargo delivery trip to the International Space Station by a robotic, American-made spacecraft.
The unmanned Dragon space capsule, built by the commercial spaceflight firm SpaceX, roared into space atop the company's Falcon 9 rocket from a launch pad here at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, beginning a three-day flight to the space station. Liftoff occurred at 8:35 p.m. EDT (0035 Monday GMT).
The mission is the first of a dozen SpaceX cargo flights under a .6 billion deal with NASA for its Commercial Resupply Services program. This flight, being the first mission, is dubbed SpaceX CRS-1 and is expected to arrive at the orbiting lab on Wednesday morning (Oct. 7).
NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini said Dragon's ability to launch supplies to the station and return cargo back to Earth is a cornerstone of boosting scientific research on the orbiting laboratory, as well as its day-to-day maintenance.
Sunday night's launch was nearly flawless. One of the Falcon 9 rocket nine engines apparently shut down unexpectedly during the ascent, but the booster's eight other engines compensated for the glitch and delivered the Dragon spacecraft into its intended orbit, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said after the flight. The rocket is designed to do exactly that in the event of an engine anomaly, she added.
An American spaceship rises
When NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011, it marked the first time in 30 years that the United States did not have an American spacecraft capable of flying missions to and from low-Earth orbit. NASA is relying on the availability of new private space taxis to deliver U.S. supplies, and ultimately astronauts, to the International Space Station.
Currently, the U.S. space agency depends on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry crews to the station, and sends cargo on various robotic spacecraft operated by space agencies in Russia, Japan and Europe. But those unmanned space freighters are not designed to return science experiments and other station gear back to Earth. Instead, the spacecraft are disposed of in Earth's atmosphere by burning up during re-entry.
That is where Dragon stands out.
SpaceX's unmanned Dragon capsule launches toward the International Space Station on Oct. 7, 2012, kicking off the first-ever bona fide cargo run for a private American spaceship.
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