AN unmanned rocket owned by privately held Space Exploration Technologies blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station yesterday in the first commercial flight to the International Space Station.
The 178-foot tall Falcon 9 rocket lifted off at 7.44am Irish time from a refurbished launch pad just south of where NASA launched its now-retired space shuttles.
Less than 10 minutes later, the rocket delivered its cargo -- a Dragon capsule with 1,200 pounds (544 kg) of supplies for the station crew -- into orbit.
"Feels like a giant weight just came off my back," company founder and chief executive Elon Musk posted on Twitter after Dragon deployed its solar panels, the first of several key milestones that must be met before the spacecraft is cleared to dock at the station.
"Every launch into space is a thrilling event, but this one is especially exciting because it represents the potential of a new era in American spaceflight," John Holdren, President Barack Obama's chief science adviser, said in a statement.
NASA is counting on companies like Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, to take over the task of flying cargo -- and eventually astronauts -- to the $100bn (€79bn) space station, which orbits about 240 miles above Earth.
Currently, NASA is dependent on Russia to fly crew to the station, at a cost of more than $60m (€47m) per person.