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SpaceX rocket launches into orbit, booster returns to earth

The 15-story high booster portion of the rocket successfully returned to earth with a controlled, upright, landing. SpaceX hopes to begin carrying astronauts to the space station in 2018 and, eventually, to Mars.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off a historic NASA launch pad Sunday, carrying tons of food and supplies to the International Space Station.

The white rocket was visible for just seconds before it ducked behind the clouds over Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 9:38 a.m. (1438 UTC).

The SpaceX mission was the first from NASA's 39A launchpad, where the country's pioneering spaceflights first took astronauts to the Moon nearly half a century ago. It was also the site of the Space Shuttle missions that ran from 1981 to 2011 and had not been used for more than six years.

The rocket, carrying 5,500 pounds (2,500 kg) of food, clothes and equipment, won't reach the space station until Wednesday, but the launch is already being seen as a major success. About 10 minutes after take-off, SpaceX fired the engines, anew, on the booster portion of the Falcon 9, separating the 15-story booster from the rocket.

It then returned to earth with a controlled, upright, landing at a different part of the Cape Canaveral base. It was just the third time SpaceX has managed to stick a landing on solid ground.

"The Falcon has landed once again," a SpaceX spokeswoman said on a live webcast, as loud cheers and applause erupted at the company's mission control center in Hawthorne, California.

SpaceX chief Elon Musk celebrated the successful touchdown via Twitter.

"Baby came back," he tweeted.

Thrust vector control actuator

The control cheers were reinvigorated minutes later when the Dragon cargo ship successfully reached orbit.

The launch was originally scheduled for Saturday but was scrapped just 13 seconds before launch due to a glitch with the rocket engine.

"They resolved all the technical issues last night," said NASA's Bob Cabana, director of Kennedy Space Center.

Watch video 01:04

Successful rocket launch: cargo ship on its way to ISS

The origin of the problem was a piece of equipment known as the thrust vector control actuator. It was replaced and subsequent tests showed it was working fine, according to a SpaceX spokesman.

Musk said he's honored to use Launch Complex 39A. SpaceX hopes to launch astronauts from the same pad next year, bringing US crew launches back to home turf after a longer-than-expected hiatus.

SpaceX Mars missions, first with robots and eventually with people, could follow.

The last time the company had a rocket ready to fly from Florida, it blew up on a neighboring Cape Canaveral pad during prelaunch testing on September 1.

SpaceX successfully returned to flight last month from California, but the focus was on getting leased Launch Complex 39A ready for action given that the pad with the accident was left unusable.

Robert Cabana, a former shuttle commander, and now the Kennedy Space Center's director said he was thrilled to see the pad back in action, he said: "It's just really an exciting time."

bik/sms (AP, Reuters, AFP)

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