SpaceX, like NASA, is an organization defined by milestone achievements. Today's launch of the Dragon capsule is arguably their biggest yet--and an auspicious step for a company that isn't just at the center of the fledgling private space flight industry, but of America's newly restructured space agency.
SpaceX's mission, as defined by the NASA COTS program:
SpaceX will launch its Dragon spacecraft atop the Falcon 9 rocket. Dragon will make almost 2 orbits of the Earth, and land in the Pacific Ocean approximately 3 ½ hours later.
Today, they pulled it off:
SpaceX launched its Dragon spacecraft into low-Earth orbit atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 10:43 AM EST from Launch Complex 40 at the Air Force Station at Cape Canaveral.
The Dragon spacecraft orbited the Earth at speeds greater than 17,000 miles per hour, reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, and landed in the Pacific Ocean shortly after 2:00 PM EST.
In the context of NASA's iconic missions, this sounds modest. But SpaceX is the first private company to launch a craft into low Earth orbit and recover it. It's a Vostok 1 moment for the company, and for the industry. Well, almost.
What comes next is a mission to the ISS, or at least near to it. A Dragon capsule will be launched to within 6 miles of the ISS, where it will eventually, theoretically, haul cargo and crew in lieu of NASA's soon-to-be defunct Shuttle fleet. It will be months before this comes to pass, and even longer before the prospect of human passengers is considered.
Of course, SpaceX founder Elon Musk knows that accessible human space travel is the most intoxicating aspect of his company's work, and couldn't help but bring it up at the joint SpaceX/NASA conference today. "If there had been people sitting in the Dragon capsule today," he claims, "they would have had a very nice ride."
In other words, technologically speaking, human spaceflight is possible right now.
Here's a short video of the launch, courtesy of NASA: