CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - A private cargo rocket bound for the International Space Station blasted off early Tuesday morning in what NASA hopes will mark an important step in handing routine space missions over to the private sector.
With the brilliant glare of nine engines spewing out 1 million pounds of thrust, the rocket, a Falcon 9 built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif., or SpaceX, rose slowly off the launching pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, then shot upward into the sky.
“What a spectacular start,’’ the NASA administrator, Major General Charles F. Bolden Jr., said afterward. “It was a picture-perfect launch.’’
The payload is only about 1,000 pounds of cargo, with nothing of great value. The importance is instead technical and symbolic.
If the cargo capsule makes it to the space station, it would be the first commercial, rather than government-operated, spacecraft to dock at the station. A successful mission would reinforce NASA’s efforts to turn over basic transportation to low-Earth orbit to private companies.
“We’re really at the dawn of a new era of space exploration and one where there’s a much bigger role for commercial companies,’’ said Elon Musk, SpaceX’s chief executive, after the launching.
With success of this flight, SpaceX would begin a $1.6 billion contract to fly 12 cargo missions to the space station. SpaceX is also among the companies aiming to win NASA business for taking astronauts to the space station.
Tuesday’s launching was the third for the Falcon 9 rocket and it followed the same pattern of two earlier ones in 2010, in which a last-minute glitch halted the first attempt before the rocket went off without a hitch on the next try.
In an aborted liftoff Saturday morning, the engines of the 157-foot tall Falcon 9 rocket had already ignited before computers shut them down because of high pressure in the combustion chamber of the center engine. By the end of the day, technicians had replaced a faulty valve.
For its second attempt, SpaceX had to wait until Tuesday at 3:44 a.m. for the space station’s orbit to line up with the launching pad, enabling the capsule to be launched on a trajectory trailing the station.
As the countdown clock hit zero, the engines remained ignited. Less than 10 minutes later, the cargo capsule, known as the Dragon, was in orbit. Several other early tasks were also successful including deployment of its solar arrays and navigational sensors and testing of the Global Positioning System.
“Anything could have gone wrong, and everything went right, fortunately,’’ Musk said.
Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, confirmed that the second stage of the Falcon 9 contained a payload from Celestis of Houston that carried to orbit the ashes of 300 people, including actor James Doohan, who played the chief engineer Scotty in the original “Star Trek’’ television series, and Gordon Cooper, one of the original Mercury astronauts.
The hard part of the SpaceX mission is still to come. It has to catch up to the space station, which circles Earth at 17,000 miles per hour. On Thursday, it will fly about 1.5 miles underneath the space station to demonstrate its communication and navigation systems. If it passes all of those tests, it will circle around and begin a final approach until it is about 33 feet away.
A robotic arm on the space station, operated by an astronaut aboard, will grab the Dragon and swing it to a docking port.
Once there, the Dragon would remain attached until the end of the month as astronauts unpack cargo and pack items to bring back. Undocking on May 31, the Dragon would land in the Pacific Ocean off California.
If SpaceX does not reach all of the goals on this flight, it might have to fly another demonstration flight before beginning the cargo contract.