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SpaceX launches rocket from historic moon pad

CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. — Engines ignited and a rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on Sunday, for the first time since the last space shuttle launch 5 ½ years ago.

A Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX was launched with 5,500 pounds of supplies, experiments, and other cargo headed to the International Space Station.

It was the first flight from NASA’s legendary Launch Complex 39A since the space shuttle program ended, and the private aerospace company’s first liftoff from Florida since a rocket explosion last summer.

The Dragon cargo capsule is to arrive at the station on Wednesday, when a robotic arm will grab the capsule and take it to one of the docking ports.

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“All is looking great,” Jessica Jensen, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, said in a news conference after the launch. “We’re not expecting any issues.”

SpaceX was again able to recover the booster stage. As the second stage ignited to push the cargo capsule to orbit, the booster turned around back toward land.

Eight minutes after it left the ground, it set down on a landing site a few miles away. It was the eighth successful landing and the third on land. (The other landings occurred on floating platforms in the ocean.)

The success was another step in the recovery of SpaceX from a major setback last September when one of its rockets caught fire and exploded on a launchpad at the adjoining Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

A launch attempt on Saturday was called off with 13 seconds left. Elon Musk, founder of the Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, said the reason was “slightly odd” readings with a backup motor for steering the engine nozzle on the second stage.

In response to a question posted on Twitter by an MSNBC producer, Musk said that he called off the launch to take a closer look to make sure the readings were not a sign of a more significant, undetected problem.

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In another post, Musk wrote, “1 percent chance isn’t worth rolling the dice. Better to wait a day.”

Overnight, SpaceX technicians swapped out the mechanism. The odd readings did not recur Sunday.

SpaceX hopes to catch up on its jammed schedule, which was delayed after the explosion. It plans to launch a used rocket — one of the recovered boosters — this spring. The next cargo mission for NASA is to be the first to reuse a capsule from a previous flight.

The launch of the Falcon Heavy, a larger rocket years behind schedule, is aimed for summer. And by the end of the year, the company wants to test a rocket and capsule that is to lead to ferrying astronauts to the space station.

Beyond the resumption of SpaceX’s space station deliveries, Sunday’s launch also marked a transition of the Kennedy Space Center toward private use of the facilities.

In 2014, SpaceX took over a former space shuttle launchpad that NASA no longer needed. “This pad would have just sat here and rusted away in the salt air had we not had the use agreement with SpaceX,” Robert D. Cabana, the space center director, said at a news conference in front of the launchpad on Friday. “What an awesome use of a great American asset.”

Launch Complex 39A was where the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off on July 8, 2011, on the last shuttle mission, and was home to the first shuttle launch in 1981. It was also the starting point for all but one of the manned Apollo missions, including Apollo 11, the first moon landing, in 1969.

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The cancellation by the Obama administration of Constellation, a program intended to send astronauts back to the moon, led many to wonder whether the Kennedy Space Center had much of a future.

The revised vision for NASA, unveiled in early 2010, called for a five-year hiatus in rocket development to allow investment in innovative but unready technologies — and nothing on the horizon to launch from Kennedy. (Launching continued at Cape Canaveral.)

Congress pushed the Obama administration to revive aspects of Constellation. Two months after the last space shuttle mission, NASA announced the Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket that would take astronauts on deep space missions and eventually to Mars.

While the cancellation of Constellation battered Kennedy, another shift in NASA direction — turning over the launching of space station astronauts to private companies — opened possibilities.

SpaceX and Boeing won the NASA contracts. Boeing is now building its CST-100 Starliner in a Kennedy building once used for refurbishing space shuttles.

SpaceX and Boeing are scheduled to launch the first astronaut missions in 2018.

The Falcon 9 was the first flight to take off from the Florida launch complex since the space shuttle program ended. Craig Bailey/Florida Today/AP