Congratulations to the team at Space X! At 16:26 Pacific time today (Sunday, September 28, 2008), their Falcon 1 rocket achieved orbit around the Earth, the first time a privately funded company has done such a feat with a liquid fuel rocket.
This was their fourth attempt to get to orbit with the Falcon 1 rocket. The first three failed to make orbit for various reasons; each time the company analyzed the problem and was able to move on. This last time, they appeared to have gotten it right.
There was no scientific or commercial payload; instead, they launched what's called a "mass simulator"; a hexagonal chunk of metal that simulates an actual payload. It didn't deploy, but instead stayed inside the rocket's second stage as it orbits the Earth.
As I write this there is no word on the Space X website about the orbital configuration (height above Earth and all that), but I'll keep an eye open and report that when I find out.
Let me say, this is fantastic news! Once the Falcon 1 has a series of launches under its belt, Space X will start launching the Falcon 9, and then the fun really begins. It will be able to lift several tons to orbit, giving customers an alternative to government-funded launch agencies.
We still have a long way to go before there is cheap and easy access to space -- and there are lots of other companies working on that, too -- but it's a step in the right direction.
Image of the Falcon 1 Flight 4 rocket preparing for launch courtesy Space X.