SpaceX Falcon Rocket Flies

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SpaceX, the darling of commercial space advocates and

whipping boy of its foes, defied the odds Friday and sent a new rocket into

orbit, a stunning achievement considering the company had to quickly recover

from a trio of setbacks earlier in the day, including a dramatic last-second

engine abort.

The 158-foot tall Falcon 9 rocket bolted off its seaside

launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Fla., 2:45 p.m. EDT, delivering what may turn out

to be a death knell to opponents of a new “buy commercial” initiative that threatens

to upset the status quo at NASA like never before.

Soaring cleanly over the Atlantic Ocean just south of where

NASA will soon mothball its shuttle launch pads, the rocket delivered a mockup

capsule into orbit, following an apparently smooth 9 ½-minute ride.

“It looks like we have made progress toward expanding the

human presence in space,” said SpaceX’s Robyn Ringuette, who provided a bit a

launch commentary on a Internet broadcast of the launch.

SpaceX intends to fly again this summer on a demonstration

mission for NASA. By next year, it plans to start work on a $1.6 billion NASA

contract to haul cargo to the International Space Station. Its ultimate goal, however, is to fly people aboard cheap, safe reusable spaceships.

The Obama administration wants to turn over station crew

ferry flights to companies like SpaceX, an idea that has been hotly debated in

Congress. Falcon 9’s inaugural launch, however, could take some of the wind out

of critics’ sails.

(Falcon flies. Credit: Getty Images)