SpaceX’s Dragon capsule thundered into orbit atop a Falcon 9 rocket early May 22, marking a successful start to the 10-year-old company’s bid to carry out the first U.S. commercial re-supply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The unpiloted freighter, developed under the banner of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, now must complete more than a dozen agency-monitored test objectives before it is permitted to approach the orbiting science lab close enough to berth, possibly as soon as May 25, shortly after 11 a.m. EDT.

Much is riding on the nine-day COTS 2/3 demonstration flight. NASA’s own six-year effort to foster mature commercial orbital cargo and crew space transportation services as a successor to the long-running space shuttle program, SpaceX and its eager competitors all have something at stake.

“This helps to commercialize low Earth orbit,” says Mike Suffredini, NASA’s International Space Station program manager. “Some of us believe this is a very important step for us to take in order to do exploration in the future. NASA needs to start focusing on human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.”

With the delivery of a minimal, non-essential load of cargo to the six-person station and a parachute descent into the waters off the Southern California coast for post-flight recovery, SpaceX stands to collect the final installment of $396 million in COTS assistance from NASA.

More importantly, success would qualify the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company to begin the regular delivery of supplies to the station under a $1.6 billion, 12-mission contract awarded to SpaceX in late 2008. The first two missions are planned for this year.

“Falcon flew perfectly,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX founder, CEO and chief technology officer, via Twitter as Dragon reached orbit. “Feels like a giant weight just came off my back.”

In pre-launch statements, Musk urged restraint in scoring the flight until it is complete. “I think we’ve got a pretty good shot, but I think it’s worth emphasizing that there is a lot that can go wrong on a mission like this,” he said.

A last-moment pressure rise in one of the Falcon 9’s Merlin first-stage engines prompted a May 19 launch abort. SpaceX replaced a faulty check valve to address the issue.

“Indeed, we may not succeed in getting all the way to the space station. But I think it would be a mistake to put too much weight on this flight,” said Musk, who put $100 million of his own money into the estimated $1.2 billion Falcon 9/Dragon development effort. “But there should be no doubt about our resolve. We will get to the space station, whether it’s this mission or a future one.”

Even before the launch, SpaceX had made a significant contribution to the U.S. commercial  launch industry with the introduction of the Falcon 9, a comparatively low-cost launcher that will help the U.S. compete in the global launch market, contends Larry Williams, the company’s former vice president for strategic relations.

“Just getting to this point is a very, very significant milestone for SpaceX, the commercial launch industry, really for the nation,” Williams said in a May 18 phone interview. He predicts the company’s interactions with NASA as well as the mission sequence will be followed closely by competitors.

“It’s something like we used to say — what’s good for GM, is good for America,” said Williams, who departed SpaceX in April to found Capture10, a Washington-based business development strategy firm.

“If they get even half the way there, that is still one for the history books,” agreed Jeff Greason, president of XCOR Aerospace and co-founder of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, during a press event last week. “They have competitors nipping at their heels, making progress behind them.”

The Falcon 9 rose from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., at 3:44 a.m. EDT. The two-stage launcher climbed through the darkness on a northerly trajectory before settling into an initial 212 x 194-mi. orbit and successfully deploying its solar arrays.

The ISS circled the Earth at 250 mi. altitude over the North Atlantic, just east of Newfoundland, as the mission lifted off.

Over the mission’s first two days, Dragon is scheduled to check out and demonstrate GPS, lidar and thermal imaging navigation sensors; retreat and rendezvous abort procedures and a free drift capability, all while pursuing and gaining altitude to reach its destination.

With the approval of NASA’s space station mission management team (MMT) and flight control teams, Dragon will steer itself to a point 1.5 mi. below the station early May 24. There, Dragon will demonstrate a relative GPS navigation capability. Station astronauts Don Pettit of NASA and Andre Kuipers of the European Space Agency will check out their ability to receive telemetry and issue commands to Dragon through an onboard communications unit.

The capsule then will depart in a racetrack pattern that successively takes it out in front of, over the top of, and well behind the station, allowing the MMT and flight control team to deliberate on a May 25 re-rendezvous and berthing attempt. With clearance, Dragon will return to a point 1.5 mi. below the station.

More communication and navigation checkouts will follow, all managed through a series of five “Go/No-Go” determinations from the MMT and flight controllers. Each advance will bring Dragon to a hold point just 35 ft. below the station and lead to a capture of the freighter with the station’s 58-ft.-long Canadarm2.

Posted at a control console in the station’s Cupola observation deck, Pettit and Kuipers will reach out with the robot arm to grapple the freighter and berth it to the U.S. segment Harmony module. A stay of seven days is planned. Once scheduled to last two weeks, the docking period is constrained by an increasing solar beta angle, which is directing more heat from the Sun onto the station’s orbital plane. There are backup rendezvous opportunities to accommodate difficulties.

A day after the berthing, the station’s astronauts plan to open Dragon and unload 1,000 lb. of food, clothing, water, a Nanoracks student experiment package, laptop computers, batteries and other supplies. The small cargo will be replaced with 1,370 lb. of astronaut equipment, unneeded spacesuit gear, experiment samples and refurbishable station hardware.

So far, Dragon is the only supplier offering NASA a cargo-return capability — a significant feature for scientists in need of frozen medical specimens and other experiment samples gathered and produced aboard the station.

Though each of the Dragon mission’s other objectives have been met by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s automated HTV cargo carrier during missions in 2011 and 2009, SpaceX is striving to bring a private sector personality to the venture.

Under the COTS banner, the current Dragon mission objectives were initially spread over two missions, the COTS 2 and 3 demonstration missions, penciled in for November 2009 and March 2010.

After a successful test flight of the Falcon 9 in June 2010 and the impressive COTS 1 mission in which the launcher and a Dragon orbited the Earth 2.5 times before descending for a Pacific ocean recovery in December 2010, SpaceX urged NASA to consider combining the COTS 2 and 3 demonstration objectives into a single test flight that would include the berthing as well as the rendezvous.

The launch slipped from November 2011 to February, then to March and finally April 30, May 7 and May 19 as SpaceX worked its way through a challenging flight-software verification process that gave NASA confidence Dragon can make a controlled approach to the station.

NASA’s COTS initiative supports a second participant, Orbital Sciences Corp., which plans to carry out a similar demonstration mission later this year, launching from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia.

Orbital has a $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA for eight station missions, also awarded in December 2008.

In addition, SpaceX is one of four companies currently partnered with NASA under its Commercial Crew Development initiative. Ready to move into the preliminary and critical design phase, the NASA initiative has guided efforts by SpaceX to human-rate the Falcon 9 and Dragon to begin the regular transport of up to seven astronauts to the space station.

SpaceX believes crew flights could begin in mid-2015. NASA believes 2017 is more realistic in the current budget environment.