CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A private company launched a spacecraft into orbit and then, in a historic first, guided it back to Earth on Wednesday in a bold test for NASA that could lead to the first commercial space station supply run next year and eventual astronaut rides.
The capsule named Dragon, built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, splashed down into the Pacific Ocean three hours after launching from Cape Canaveral. NASA immediately offered congratulations.
"Splashdown on target. Mission is a success!" the company announced via Twitter.
Until now, only governments had accomplished re-entries from orbit.
The Dragon rode into orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It circled the world twice, then parachuted into the Pacific. It was aiming for a spot roughly 500 miles off the Mexican coast. Recovery crews were quickly on the scene, putting floats on the spacecraft.
SpaceX's chief executive officer, Elon Musk, raised his arms in victory when the three main parachutes deployed, a company spokeswoman said. He oversaw everything from Mission Control at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.
The spacecraft carried thousands of patches for company employees; no official payload was required for this test. An Army nanosatellite hitched a ride, though, in a technology demonstration.
NASA is hiring companies like SpaceX to haul supplies to the International Space Station following next year's retirement of the space shuttle. Taxi trips for astronauts may follow.
Space station commander Scott Kelly kept abreast of the day's developments via NASA's Mission Control, which beamed up live launch coverage for him and his two Russian crewmates.
Excited about the success, Kelly asked to be tuned in to the postflight news conference. He told a reporter earlier in the day he would gladly fly into space on a commercial rocket, "if that's the path we're proceeding on."
The flight had been scheduled for Tuesday, but was delayed to repair cracks in the upper-stage rocket nozzle.
This was the first flight under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, as well as the first flight of an operational Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX's first flight of a Falcon 9 rocket, in June, carried a capsule mock-up that deliberately burned up on re-entry.
Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration issued its first re-entry license to SpaceX, paving the way for Wednesday's flight.
"Getting this far, this fast, has been a remarkable achievement," said NASA's acting director of commercial spaceflight development, Phil McAlister. He stressed that this is a test flight and that spaceflight is "very, very difficult."
"The purpose of the test flight is to learn. So as long as we're learning, and we have a clear path for demonstration flight two, we would consider that successful," McAlister told reporters earlier this week.
SpaceX -- created by PayPal co-founder Musk -- intends to begin station deliveries by the end of 2011. He said he could be launching station crews within three years of getting the go-ahead from NASA.
NASA already is relying on Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the space station. It's an expensive arrangement: $26 million per person this year, rising to $51 million next year, and to $56 million in 2013.
Ideally, NASA wants multiple companies to take over the job of cargo and crew transport. The effort has taken on increased significance, McAlister said, since the working lifetime of the space station was extended to at least 2020.
SpaceX currently has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA for 12 supply runs. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia has a $1.9 billion contract for eight.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said her company has poured more than $600 million into the test flight effort so far and received $278 million from NASA. She took aim at critics, some of whom don't trust companies to provide the same level of crew safety as NASA.
"I bristle a little bit at the whole concept of 'cutting corners,' " she said this week. "Just because it's faster doesn't mean it's more risky."
NASA has just two shuttle missions remaining, in February and April. The space agency hopes to get funding for a third and final flight next summer, to restock the orbiting lab in case the commercial launch companies fall behind.