A spacecraft built by a private company has successfully returned to Earth from orbit for the first time.

101208-falcon-9-liftoff-reuters-rtxvj8o-300px

The rocket carrying the Dragon capsule blasts off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 10:43 a.m. ET Wednesday. ((Scott Odette/Reuters))

The Dragon capsule built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico shortly after 2 p.m. ET Wednesday.

"This has really been better than I expected," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said at a news conference following the successful recovery of the capsule.

"For a rocket to work and a spacecraft to work … there's so much that can go wrong. And it all went right. We didn't even have to go to any backup systems or anything at any point."

Dragon had launched aboard the Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 10:43 a.m. and had orbited Earth twice before re-entering the atmosphere and deploying its parachute.

"The historic significance of today's achievement by SpaceX should not be lost," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.

"This is the first in a new generation of commercial launch systems that will help provide vital support to the International Space Station and may one day carry astronauts into orbit. This successful demonstration flight is an important milestone ... and shows how government and industry can leverage expertise and resources to foster a new and vibrant space economy."

SpaceX was one of two companies contracted by NASA in 2008 to haul supplies to the International Space Station following next year's shuttle retirement. Taxi trips for astronauts may follow. 

101208-dragon-recovery

The Dragon capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico shortly after 2 p.m. ET Wednesday. ((NASA TV))

SpaceX's contract is for 12 flights at a price of $1.6 billion US, while Orbital Sciences Corp. will make up to eight flights for $1.9 billion US.

Musk, one of the co-founders of PayPal Inc., credited SpaceX staff for the successful launch. But he also credited NASA for developing the core technologies behind the rocket and capsule over decades.

He added that only an escape system, seats and minor upgrades to the capsule's life-support system are needed before it can carry people.

The next version of the Dragon will also have a propulsive system similar to that on the moon lander Eagle that will allow the capsule to make very precise landings, Musk said.

This was the first launch of the Dragon spacecraft, although the Falcon 9 was successfully test launched in June.

Liftoff of the Falcon 9 was delayed from Tuesday to fix a cracked rocket nozzle.

The successful launch on Wednesday was the second attempt of the morning. The first, at 9:06 a.m., was called off because of a false indicator from the Falcon 9's ordnance interrupter, part of the rocket's flight termination system, NASA reported.

Another commercial spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, made headlines in 2004 when it demonstrated it was able to carry three people 100 kilometres away from Earth and back twice in a two-week period, winning the $10-million Ansari X-Prize.

However, SpaceShipOne was never designed to reach the much greater distances from Earth at which the Dragon spacecraft was to orbit. Musk reported that the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket travelled to a height of 11,000 kilometres from Earth.

The private company Virgin Galactic is gearing up to offer commercial flights on SpaceShipTwo, a suborbital spacecraft based on the SpaceShipOne prototype. In October, the company announced the completion of its spaceport runway. At the time, it said it expected to begin offering $200,000 flights to space tourists in nine to 18 months.

NASA video of the launch

Itinerary for the Falcon 9/Dragon orbit and re-entry test

 T-00:00:00   Liftoff
 T+0:02:58  1st stage shut down (main engine cutoff)
 T+0:03:02   1st stage separates
 T+0:03:09    2nd stage engine start
 T+0:09:00      2nd stage engine cutoff
 T+0:09:35  Dragon separates from Falcon 9 and initializes propulsion
 T+0:13  On-orbit operations
 T+2:32   Deorbit burn begins
 T+2:38  Deorbit burn ends
 T+2:58  Re-entry phase begins
 T+3:09  Drogue chute deploys
 T+3:10  Main chute deploys
 T+3:19  Water landing

Source: Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

    

With files from the Associated Press