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SpaceX Launches First Commercial Orbiter

Contractor could play key role in NASA's plan to turn launches over to the private sector.

Space Exploration Technologies on Wednesday successfully put a capsule capable of transporting humans to the International Space Station into orbit, marking the first time a privately-owned contractor has accomplished such a feat.

SpaceX's Dragon capsule, boosted by the company's own Falcon 9 rocket, blasted off from Florida's Cape Canaveral at 10:43 a.m., following a 90-minute delay caused by a faulty indicator light. If all goes well, Dragon will circle the globe twice before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, about 500 miles west of the Mexican coastline.

SpaceX officials used their Twitter account to spread word of the successful trial.

"A beautiful launch, Dragon is still in orbit," said the company, on its SpaceXMissions Twitter page. SpaceX plans to test Dragon several more times before it launches a manned flight of the orbiter.

SpaceX could play a key role in President Obama's plan to turn launches to the ISS over to private contractors following the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet next year. The president wants the space agency to concentrate more on deep space missions—with an eye to putting a man on Mars in the next few decades—and environmental research.

The plan has drawn barbs from critics, including several members of Congress, who say it will cost jobs along Florida's Spacecoast and in other states that support NASA, and could leave the U.S. trailing Russia and China in the space race.

NASA is cooperating with SpaceX and other contractors as it looks to turn many of its traditional activities over to the private sector under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.

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