Giant leap for private enterprise

The first new spacecraft in 30 years capable of carrying humans into orbit and returning them safely to Earth blasted off from Cape Canaveral yesterday in a milestone launch for the fledgling private space flight industry.

Falcon 9, a heavy-lift rocket developed by the California-based company SpaceX, cleared the launch pad at Florida's Kennedy Space Centre at 10:43am local time carrying the Dragon capsule that will one day probably ferry American astronauts to the international space station.

The four-hour mission, scheduled to culminate in the capsule's splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, marked the first time that anyone other than a government space agency had successfully launched a returnable space vehicle.

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Dragon, is the first new and reusable human- capable spacecraft to be sent into orbit since the US space shuttle fleet launched in 1981. Named after the Peter, Paul and Mary song Puff the Magic Dragon, it will form the centrepiece of SpaceX's attempts to win a Nasa contract for transporting astronauts after the ageing shuttle fleet is retired next year.

The launch of Falcon 9 was hailed as "ground-breaking" by Elon Musk, the internet tycoon and PayPal founder who set up SpaceX in 2002 to further his passion for space.

"This would represent an important milestone in the history of space, heralding the dawn of a new era where private companies can now bring back spacecraft from orbit. Successful recovery of Dragon would also bode very well for future astronaut transport," he told shortly before the launch.

"Only five countries and the European Space Agency have achieved this level of technology. What really matters is actually doing this successfully and becoming the first commercial company to come back from orbit safely."

Boosted by a $200 million (126m) injection from Nasa, Falcon 9 made its first brief test flight in July, which Musk called "a bullseye" for the company. Yesterday's mission was designed to build on the lessons learned from that flight, and make the first return to Earth's atmosphere, and recovery, of the capsule.

"Falcon 9 nailed it," said Bill Nye, the executive director of the Planetary Society. "We congratulate Elon Musk and his team on a successful launch, another step towards commercial applications that may one day help Nasa carry supplies and astronauts to low-Earth orbit.Bold endeavours like this will advance the chances for success for everyone in the Earth-orbit business."

Musk, the 39-year-old entrepreneur, is a colourful character whose private life often attracts as many headlines as his business accomplishments.

During a fiery divorce court hearing earlier this year, in which wife Justine sued for a sizeable chunk of his estimated 200 million fortune, he claimed he had recently run out of money and was relying on personal loans from friends.

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The battle played out in the tabloid press and on novelist Justine's personal blog, in which she defended herself against allegations of gold-digging and claimed that wanting a 10 per cent cut of SpaceX, among other things, was fair.

Musk went on to marry actress Tallulah Riley, 25, star of the St Trinians films, in a lavish ceremony at Dornoch Cathedral in September.