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SpaceX spacecraft returns safely from orbit

December 8, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
A giant step was taken Wednesday in the space race to put tourists into orbit. For the first time ever, a private company launched an aircraft into space and then guided it back to Earth.

Hawthorne-based Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, launched its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 7:43 a.m.

After a successful launch, two orbits by the Dragon spacecraft around the Earth and a splash landing in the Pacific Ocean three hours later, SpaceX employees had plenty to celebrate.

"I'm just in semishock," said SpaceX founder and CEO, Elon Musk. "I wish I could be more articulate in moments like this."

Musk said his company has signed a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to shuttle cargo supplies to the International Space Station starting late next year. Musk said Wednesday's mission is proof his company can do it safely.

But Musk is determined to carry people onboard his aircraft soon after.

"If there had been people sitting in the Dragon capsule today, they would have had a very nice ride," he said.

It's not the first time a company has promised flights to space.

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is already offering suborbital flights around the Earth for about $200,000 per ticket.

SpaceX will likely reserve their first human flights for astronauts, but experts agree the company is well ahead of the competition.

"It's a lot harder to get to an orbital flight and SpaceX has demonstrated today that at least they can get something up and get it back down," said Dr. Bruce Betts of the Planetary Society.

But before they put people in their aircraft, SpaceX does plan on changing Wednesday's Apollo-era water landing to a more precise approach in the next generation.

"You can literally land on a helipad and take off again," Musk said.

NASA is relying on private companies to take over after they launch their last shuttle to the International Space Station in 2011.

SpaceX said they should be able to start transporting astronauts in about three years for less money than what Russia was going to charge.


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