The fourth time was the charm for Space Exploration Technologies Inc.
The Hawthorne-based company became the first to get a privately-built and funded rocket into orbit. Its Falcon 1 rocket, carrying a 364-pound dummy payload, reached orbit at 4:26 p.m. Sunday, a little more than eight minutes after its launch from the South Pacific.
It was the fourth Falcon 1 launch for SpaceX but the first successful one after a string of failures. The first Falcon 1 failed because of a fuel line leak, the second because one of the rocket's stages prematurely shut off and the third because of a failed stage separation.
Sunday's success was a milestone for the fledgling aerospace corporation, bankrolled by former PayPal co-founder Elon Musk. It is one of two companies competing for a multimillion dollar NASA contract to re-supply the International Space Station in 2010. The other company is Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia, an established aerospace firm.
"This really means a lot," Musk told a crowd of employees Sunday, according to the Associated Press. "There's only a handful of countries on Earth that have done this. It's usually a country thing, not a company thing. We did it."
SpaceX is currently preparing its Falcon 9, a larger, heavier version of the Falcon 1, for launch next year. The Falcon 9 is the rocket Musk hopes will carry supplies and astronauts to the space station.
The Falcon 1 launches from Omelek Island, part of the Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. The atoll and its launch sites are overseen by the US Army. The company's mission control center is in Hawthorne.
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