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This is one of the greatest days of my life,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. SpaceX’s Falcon 1 became the first privately built liquid rocket to orbit the Earth tonight, following in the footsteps of SpaceShipOne which became the first privately built crewed spaceship to fly suborbitally in October 2004.

After six years of hard work and disappointment, the startup company is expected to revolutionize space travel. Their 70-foot-tall rocket successfully delivered a 364-pound hunk of aluminum to orbit on the launcher’s fourth flight, ending a streak of three consecutive Falcon 1 failures dating back to 2006.

“That was freakin’ awesome,” said Elon Musk, CEO and chief technical officer of Space Technologies Corp. “Getting to orbit, that’s just a huge milestone,” Musk said. “There are only a handful of countries on Earth that have done it. It’s normally a country thing, not a company thing.”

Last month, SpaceX lost three government satellites and human ashes including the remains of astronaut Gordon Cooper and “Star Trek” actor James Doohan after its third rocket was lost en route to space. The company blamed a timing error for the failure that caused the rocket’s first stage to bump into the second stage after separation.

SpaceX’s maiden launch in 2006 failed because of a fuel line leak. Last year, another rocket reached about 180 miles above Earth, but its second stage prematurely shut off.

Besides the Falcon 1, SpaceX is developing for NASA a larger launch vehicle, Falcon 9, capable of flying to the international space station when the current space shuttle fleet retires in 2010.

Designed from the ground up by SpaceX, and funded by PayPal Billionaire Elon Musk, Falcon 1 is a two stage rocket powered by liquid oxygen and purified, rocket grade kerosene.

SpaceX’s backlog includes demonstration flights for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services. The COTS program selected SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to develop new spacecraft to deliver cargo to the international space station after the space shuttle’s retirement in 2010.

SpaceX is the only U.S. heavy lift provider with an equatorial launch location. Boeing’s SeaLaunch (on the equator) uses a Russian-made rocket on a modified ocean drilling platform, but does not have the capacity of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), the heavy lifters from Boeing and Lockheed.

The EELV rockets from United Launch Alliance are stuck on the Cape and Vandenburg, less ideal for geosynchronous orbit.

SeaLaunch is an international consortium as is Lockheed’s International Launch Services at Cape Canaveral and Baikonur. SpaceX challenged the legality of the launch services monopoly by Boeing and Lockheed. They plan to compete for heavy lift government launch contracts with the yet-to-be-built Falcon 5 rocket.

The United Launch Alliance is merging the two EELV programs (see DW: EELV Rocket Program Merges). Congressional leaders are asking how the government’s contribution to the EELV rocket project grew $14.44 billion over budget and counting, from $17 billion total to almost $32 billion in a few years. Taxpayers subsidized two of America’s biggest aerospace companies to keep them in the launch business, reports Florida Today.

In other news, the three Chinese astronauts returned safely to earth in their space capsule late Sunday afternoon after spending nearly three days in low orbit and completing the nation’s first spacewalk.

The re-entry capsule of the Shenzhou VII spacecraft floated down by parachute and landed on the grasslands of northern China at 5:37 p.m. Beijing time. The capsule was located about 10 minutes later by a search-and-rescue team, which helped the three astronauts climb out. The landing was shown on national television and the three astronauts appeared relatively well.

China, which has spent billions of dollars building up its space program over the past decade, is only the third country, after Russia and the United States, to send humans into space with its own spaceship.

The final Cost + graft tab for the U.S. Ares 1 moon rocket has yet to be determined.

Space news resources include; SpaceDaily, Space.com, Space News, SpaceFlightNow, SpaceRef, Florida Today, Arizona Public Media, CBS News, Fox News, CNN, Discovery: Mars Lander, MSNBC, Berkeley Space Physics, Johns Hopkins, Ball Aerospace, NASA Sites and NASA Watch.

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