There have been many amazing landmarks in the history of space exploration: The launch of Sputnik 1, the first man-made object to orbit the Earth in 1957; the launch of Sputnik 2 and its passenger Laika the dog into space later that year; the launch of Vostok 1 and the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961; the arrival of man on the Moon and Apollo 11 in 1969. And now there is another important event to add to the list: The launch of Falcon 1, the first ever private spacecraft to orbit the Earth, on this day in 2008.
Now that the great American and Russian space programmes of the 1950s and 1960s are gradually being wound down, private initiatives (as well as more modern space programmes by countries such as China) represent the future of space exploration. In contrast to America’s past successes from NASA, Falcon 1 was actually designed, constructed and launched by SpaceX: Space Exploration Technology Corps, a new spaceflight company set up by multimillionaire PayPal co-founder Elon Musk to offer low-cost commercial space launches.
SpaceX’s Falcon 1 is the first in a family of boosters, powered by engines burning liquid oxygen and kerosene and intended to take a larger craft into space and then fall back into the Pacific Ocean, from where they will be recovered and reused. The unmanned rocket’s successful launch followed on from three unsuccessful tests in previous years: The first attempt, in March 2006, failed after a fuel leak and a fire occurred just after launch; the second attempt almost reached orbit, but suffered a second-stage engine failure 180 miles above the Earth; and the third attempt failed after a timing issue caused the rocket’s first and second-stage engines to interfere with one another. Finally, on 28 September 2008, SpaceX successfully launched the Falcon 1 from the U.S. Army’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Defense Test Site, on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, into an orbit ranging from 310 to 430 miles above the Earth.
And so Falcon 1 set a new milestone in the history of flight, and SpaceX became the first private company to send a rocket into orbit. Of course this is only the beginning, and now the company is planning more flights and more rockets too–moving on from the Falcon launch vehicles to the new Dragon spacecrafts. After the golden age of NASA and the Russian cosmonauts, a new era of privately funded space exploration is clearly imminent.
Credit: Image provided by Spacex to Hope Mohler in A+E Networks’ CSG department
Caption: SpaceX Falcon 1 Flight 4 launches from Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll.