CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. -- The second demonstration mission for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program is underway as SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft lifted off Tuesday from a launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The launch took place at 3:44 a.m. EDT.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the day marked "the beginning of a new era in exploration," noting that a private company had launched a spacecraft to the International Space Station, with the intent to dock and off-load cargo. That constitutes a first.
Bolden continued that, while there is a lot of work ahead to successfully complete this mission, "we are certainly off to good start."
The Dragon capsule will conduct a series of checkout procedures to test and prove its systems, including the capability to rendezvous and berth with the International Space Station.
On Thursday, the Dragon will perform a flyby of the space station at a distance of approximately 1.5 miles to validate the operation of sensors and flight systems necessary for a safe rendezvous and approach.
Following analysis of the flyby by NASA and SpaceX managers, the Dragon capsule will be cleared to rendezvous and berth with the space station on Friday, marking the first time a commercial company has attempted this.
The Expedition 31 crew on board the station will use the orbiting complex's robot arm to capture and berth the Dragon.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, which will perform its own test flight later this year, have been working under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, which provides investments to stimulate the commercial space industry in America.
Once these companies have successfully completed their test flights, they will begin delivering regular cargo shipments to the station.
It's all the tip of a space-going iceberg.
In parallel to this program, NASA's Commercial Crew Program is helping spur innovation and development of a fleet of new private spacecraft from the commercial industry which will develop safe, reliable and cost-effective capabilities to transport astronauts to low Earth orbit and the space station.
Administrator Bolden, in describing these shapes of things to come, also took a moment to remind people which administration had set these wheels in motion,.
"Under President Obama's leadership, the nation is embarking upon an ambitious exploration program that will take us farther into space than we have ever traveled before," he said, "While helping create good-paying jobs right here in the United States of America."