A Space Exploration Technologies Corp. rocket lifted off today in the company’s second attempt to send the first commercial vehicle to the International Space Station.
The closely held company, known as SpaceX and controlled by billionaire Elon Musk, launched the Falcon 9 rocket at 3:44 a.m. from Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX will make history if its unmanned Dragon capsule docks at the station as scheduled on May 25, delivering more than 1,000 pounds of food, clothing and lab equipment.
A successful mission may ease concern that turning the space program over to the private sector is too risky, according to Michael Ciarmoli, an analyst with Cleveland-based KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc. The federal government retired its own shuttle fleet last year and wants U.S. companies to take over the job of servicing the space station.
It would show that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration “is making the wise investment in private- or commercial-based space companies,” Ciarmoli said in a telephone interview yesterday.
Today’s liftoff followed a planned May 19 launch that was called off with a half second left in the countdown. The problem was traced to a faulty engine valve.
Musk, 40, was monitoring today’s flight from mission control at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, company spokeswoman Kirstin Brost Grantham said in an e-mail yesterday. NASA streamed the liftoff live on its website.
At a NASA press conference after the launch, Musk said he had been concerned about another valve problem surfacing. With the liftoff, “every bit of adrenaline in my body released,” he said.
“It was tremendous elation,” he said. “For us, it’s like winning the Super Bowl.”
The white two-stage rocket cleared its tower in a predawn liftoff. A video feed showed SpaceX employees clapping, cheering and hugging when the Dragon capsule separated from the rocket and went into orbit on schedule, 10 minutes into the flight.
“The significance of this day cannot be overstated,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a separate media briefing at Cape Canaveral after the launch.
“We’re handing off to the private sector our transportation to the International Space Station so that NASA can focus on what we do best: Exploring even deeper into our solar system with missions to an asteroid and Mars on the horizon,” he said.
May 25 Docking
The capsule is to spend the first 24 hours essentially catching up to the station. On May 24, it’s scheduled to perform a fly-by at a distance of 1.5 miles to test sensors and flight systems before attempting to dock early May 25.
“There’s still a thousand things that have to go right,” Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s commercial crew and cargo program, said at the press conference.
The space station has a full crew of six astronauts aboard. One of them will be responsible for grabbing the Dragon capsule with the lab’s 60-foot robotic arm during the docking phase. The U.S. has invested about $50 billion in the station, which was completed last year and is scheduled to operate at least through 2020.
SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Musk, the company’s chief executive officer and chief designer. He also co-founded the online payment service PayPal Inc., now part of EBay Inc. (EBAY), and is chief executive officer of Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLA), which makes high-performance electric cars.
The South African-born Musk, who owns more than 70 million shares of SpaceX, says he wants to take the company public in 2013, according to a Feb. 10 article by Bloomberg News. He took Tesla public in 2010, and plans an initial public offering this year for SolarCity Corp., a builder of roof-top solar panels.
SpaceX is valued at an estimated $2.37 billion, according to SharesPost Inc., an online secondary market based in San Bruno, California. The figure is based on an April 20 trade of SpaceX shares at $10 a share, and it assumes 237 million shares outstanding, according to the website.
Musk has invested about $100 million in SpaceX, Brost Grantham said. Venture capital firms such as Founders Fund Management LLC, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Valor Equity Partners LP have invested at least $200 million, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
“SpaceX has been an incredibly exciting investment for us,” Steve Jurvetson, managing director at Menlo Park, California-based Draper Fisher Jurvetson, said in an e-mail yesterday. “The launch to the space station, bringing cargo up and back to Earth, will be a watershed event.”
SpaceX said in a press release last week that it has more than $4 billion in revenue under contract, including the government business and commercial sales. It announced in 2010 a $492 million agreement to launch satellites for Iridium Communications Inc. (IRDM), the world’s second largest provider of mobile satellite services.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. (ORB) have been awarded almost $700 million in combined NASA contracts to develop the ability to deliver cargo to the space station, and another $3.5 billion for 20 resupply missions scheduled to begin this fall.
Orbital, based in Dulles, Virginia, plans to launch its new Antares rocket for the first time, possibly in August, from a new launch pad near Wallops Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, said Barron Beneski, a company spokesman. It’s scheduled to deliver supplies to the space station with its Cygnus spacecraft by the end of the year as part of a test flight similar to SpaceX’s, he said.
While both companies may compete for business in the future, a SpaceX success would also benefit Orbital, according to Chris Quilty, senior vice president at Raymond James & Associates Inc., based in St. Petersburg, Florida.
“It’s basically a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats type of theory,” he said.
NASA retired the shuttle in July before companies such as SpaceX and Orbital proved they could resupply the station. The Obama administration a year earlier canceled a program to develop a shuttle successor, hoping the private sector would offer lower costs.
Only spacecraft developed by the governments of the U.S., Europe, Japan and Russia have docked with the station, which orbits about 240 miles above Earth. None of those vehicles has the ability to return significant amounts of science experiments to Earth, as the manned shuttle did and as SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is designed to do.
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