| CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., April 18
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., April 18 An unmanned
Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force
Station in Florida on Friday to deliver a cargo capsule to the
International Space Station for NASA.
The 208-foot (63-meter) tall rocket, built and operated by
privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, bolted off its
seaside launch pad at 3:25 p.m. EDT/1925 GMT, darting through
overcast skies as it headed toward orbit.
The Dragon cargo ship, which is loaded with about 5,000
pounds (2,268 kg) of equipment, science experiments and
supplies, is due to reach the station on Sunday.
The station, a $100 billion research laboratory owned by 15
nations, flies about 260 miles (418 km) above Earth.
The cargo run is the third by Space Exploration
Technologies, or SpaceX as the company is known, under a
12-flight, $1.6 billion contract with NASA. The U.S. space
agency relies on SpaceX and a second firm, Orbital Sciences
Corp. to fly supplies to the orbital outpost since the
space shuttles were retired in 2011.
NASA also is planning turn over crew transport from Russia
to private industry by 2017.
SpaceX had planned to fly last month, but delayed the
mission to review a potential contamination issue with its
rocket. The issue was resolved, but then an Air Force radar
system, needed to track the vehicle during flight, was damaged,
sidelining all launches from Cape Canaveral for two weeks.
Another launch attempt on Monday was called off after a
valve leak was found in a part of the system that separates the
Falcon 9's first and second stages. The rocket was removed from
the launch pad and repaired.
On Friday, the only issue was the weather, but the rain and
thunderstorms that clobbered Central Florida on Friday cleared
in time for the Falcon 9 to lift off at the precise moment when
Earth's rotation aligned its launch pad into the plane of the
space station's orbit.
"Mother Nature is providing a window of opportunity today,"
NASA mission commentator Michael Curie said shortly before
SpaceX planned to use Friday's launch to test technology it
has been developing to recover and reuse its rockets.
The Falcon 9's first stage holds extra fuel and four landing
legs. After it separated from the upper stage and Dragon
capsule, the rocket was expected to reignite its engines to slow
its descent and position itself for a vertical touchdown on the
ocean before toppling over on its side.
"This is a really difficult maneuver," SpaceX Vice President
Hans Koenigsmann told reporters during a prelaunch press
Overall, the company considers the test has less than a 40
percent chance of success. There was no immediate word on
whether the test was successful.
Eventually, SpaceX hopes to fly its Falcon rockets back to
land for refurbishment and reuse.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)