- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 22, 2012

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Opening a new, entrepreneurial era in spaceflight, a ship financed by a billionaire businessman sped toward the International Space Station with a load of groceries and other supplies Tuesday after a spectacular, middle-of-the-night blastoff.

The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and its unmanned Dragon capsule marked the first time a commercial spacecraft has been sent to the orbiting outpost.

Cutting a brilliant, fiery arc through the darkness, the rocket lifted off just before 4 a.m. and smoothly boosted the capsule into orbit. The capsule is expected to rendezvous with the space station within days, delivering a half-ton of provisions for its six crew members.

It is considered just a test flight - in fact, the capsule was packed with only nonessential items, in case something went wrong - but if all goes well with this mission and others like it, commercial spaceships could be carrying astronauts to and from the space station in three to five years.

“Falcon flew perfectly!!” billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder of the SpaceX company, said via Twitter. “Feels like a giant weight just came off my back.”

Mr. Musk later told reporters: “For us, it’s like winning the Super Bowl.”

Up to now, flights to the space station were something only major governments had done.

The White House offered congratulations.

“Every launch into space is a thrilling event, but this one is especially exciting,” said John Holdren, President Obama’s chief science adviser. “This expanded role for the private sector will free up more of NASA’s resources to do what NASA does best - tackle the most demanding technological challenges in space, including those of human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit.”

NASA is looking to the private sector to take over flights to the space station now that the space shuttle has been retired. Several U.S. companies are vying for the opportunity.

“The significance of this day cannot be overstated,” said beaming NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “It’s a great day for America. It’s actually a great day for the world because there are people who thought that we had gone away, and today says, ‘No, we’re not going away at all.’ “

Flight controllers applauded when the Dragon reached orbit nine minutes into the flight. Then they embraced once the solar panels on the craft popped open. Many of the SpaceX controllers wore untucked T-shirts, jeans or shorts, a stark contrast to NASA’s suit-and-tie shuttle crowd.

A previous launch attempt, on Saturday, was aborted with a half-second left in the countdown because of a bad valve in one of Falcon’s nine engines.

Another important test comes Thursday when the Dragon draws close to the space station. It will undergo practice maneuvers from more than a mile out. If all goes well, docking will occur Friday. Mr. Musk will preside from the company’s Mission Control in Hawthorne, Calif.