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With SpaceX launch, more than cargo is riding on space station mission (+video)

The Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule are the bread and butter of SpaceX, which hopes for more contracts with NASA and others to ferry things – and people – to and from space.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off
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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, topped with the company's Dragon spacecraft, is now three for three after a flawless launch in the predawn hours Tuesday morning.

Coming after two previous successful test launches in 2010, Tuesday's historic mission to the International Space Station marks the first time a commercial company has sent a craft to dock with the orbiting outpost. If all goes well, this mission marks the end of the demonstration phase under a $1.6 billion contract the company has with NASA to resupply the space station.

Tuesday's launch at 3:44 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, was the second try for this mission. The first attempt on May 19 ended a half-second after the engines ignited. A flight-control computer on board the rocket shut off the engines just before lift-off when sensors reported too much pressure in one engine's combustion chamber. Technicians traced the problem to a faulty valve, which they replaced over the weekend.

Once Dragon reached orbit and extended its solar arrays Tuesday morning – a first for the craft – it was cheers, hugs, and high-fives at SpaceX's launch control facility at the Cape as well as at mission control at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. Later, sensors crucial to the craft's navigation to and around the space station were exposed to space for the first time and were functioning as designed.

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