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SpaceX Dragon reaches orbit atop a Falcon with a fiery tail | Matt Ford | Dec 9, 2010

Until recently, there have been two classes of people playing with rockets: those of us who enjoy playing with small (and not so small) toy models in our backyards and open fields, and the governments, who get the big boy toys to do some serious rocketry. Recently, private companies have been getting into the act and showing what can be done.

A few years ago, Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne completed the unprecedented act of putting a human into space (the edge of space, mind you) and returning him safely to Earth. Yesterday, the Space Exploration Technologies corporation one-upped them by becoming the first nongovernmental entity to put a vehicle into low Earth orbit.

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has been designed to carry a crew of up to seven (or cargo) into a low Earth orbit, and return them to Earth safely. It has been developed as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program and is ultimately designed to pick up where the Space Shuttle will leave off, ferrying people and cargo to and from the ISS.

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Company is first to return spacecraft from orbit

AP | Marcia Dunn | Dec 9, 2010

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – (AP) — NASA took a giant leap away from the spaceflight business Wednesday as a private company launched a spacecraft into orbit and for the first time guided it safely back to Earth, a feat previously achieved only by large national governments.

The capsule built by Space Exploration Technologies Inc. splashed down into the Pacific Ocean, right on target, following a three-hour mission that should pave the way for an actual flight to the International Space Station next summer.

NASA wants to enlist private companies to handle space station supply runs as well as astronaut rides after the shuttles stop flying next year. Until then, the space agency will have to continue paying tens of millions of dollars to the Russians for every American astronaut ferried back and forth.

Prior to Wednesday’s test flight, recovering a spacecraft re-entering from orbit was something achieved by only five independent nations: the United States, Russia, China, Japan and India, plus the European Space Agency, a consortium of countries.

NASA immediately offered up congratulations, as did astronauts, lawmakers, and aerospace organizations and companies.

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