SpaceX shows it has the right stuff

A massive rocket developed by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur blasted off from a launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Friday, boosting prospects for privately funded vehicles to one day take astronauts and cargo into space.

The launch marked a major milestone in efforts to shift spacecraft development — which has long been dominated by governments and large, entrenched aerospace firms — to privately funded start-ups that so far have been funding their ventures mostly on their own dime.

“This is the dawn of a new era in space exploration,” said Elon Musk, the multimillionaire who poured most of his personal fortune into the rocket venture — Hawthorne-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX. “It shows that a small, new company like SpaceX can make a difference.”

The mission was closely watched by NASA and government officials because the rocket could one day take the place of the space shuttle, which is slated for retirement later this year. The rocket, Falcon 9, is a major contender to assume NASA’s responsibilities under President Obama’s proposal to outsource more space missions to private businesses.

“This launch of the Falcon 9 gives us even more confidence that a resupply vehicle will be available after the space shuttle fleet is retired,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.

NASA has invested more than $200 million in seed money to help the company develop and build the rocket. The space agency has already awarded SpaceX an additional $1.6 billion in contracts to transport cargo to the International Space Station, starting as early as next year.

“I think it’s clearly a victory for Obama’s vision,” said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst for Teal Group Corp., noting that until Friday, spacecraft development had been dominated by aerospace giants Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. “It shows that a private launch firm — not named Boeing or Lockheed — can create a heavy-lift rocket.”

SpaceX, which employs more than 1,000 people, makes its rockets in a sprawling facility that once housed the production line for Boeing’s 747 jumbo jet.

Musk, 38, who made a fortune when he sold online payment business PayPal Inc. in 2002, said he started SpaceX with the goal of developing and launching rockets at a fraction of the cost of the current generation of spacecraft.

The average space shuttle mission costs about $1billion. Musk said he would be able to charge about $50 million to haul cargo to the space station.

It’s the same kind of pitch that other private rocket ventures have made to the government, but with little success.

“The pressure on this launch was incredible. It was a relief to see them pull it off,” said Jeff Greason, president of XCOR Aerospace Inc., a Mojave-based private company that is developing rocket engines. “The road to getting an economically useful space vehicle has been a long one.”

The rocket industry is notoriously difficult to enter and littered with failed attempts. SpaceX’s first rocket — the Falcon 1 — failed three times before it carried a satellite into space.

“Failures are a relatively common occurrence in the early flights of a new rocket, and rocket scientists often learn as much from these early failures as they do from their successes,” said John Holdren, White House science policy advisor. “This single test is not a make-or-break test for the commercial launch industry or for the administration’s effort to broaden our capabilities in space.”

The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 11:45 a.m. Pacific time and reached orbit nine minutes later, SpaceX officials said.

The two-stage rocket was initially slated to launch at 8 a.m. but was delayed after several earlier attempts were aborted because of technical anomalies. It stood almost four hours before being cleared for blastoff.

The first stage of the rocket, with engines generating more than 1 million pounds of thrust, boosted it to an altitude of more than 50 miles. Then the upper stage propelled the rocket into orbit.

Shortly after the upper stage ignited, the camera mounted on the rocket showed that the rocket rolled a bit more than

SpaceX engineers had expected.

But the mission was considered a success, Musk said. “It was a near bull’s-eye.”