The privatization of space exploration gave a crucial leap forward Tuesday with the putting in orbit of Dragon, the first commercial space capsule to travel to the International Space Station.

After two postponements and an aborted launch this month, a Falcon 9 rocket of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. - SpaceX - blasted off at 3:44 a.m. from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

NASA, which last year put an end to the era of shuttles that made the construction of the International Space Station possible, has signed a $1.6 billion contract with SpaceX for a dozen missions to provide supplies for the station.

The unmanned Dragon was launched at a time when the ISS was orbiting over the North Atlantic, and some 10 minutes later the confirmation that the Dragon capsule had itself entered orbit sparked an outburst of cheering among SpaceX engineers at NASA Mission Control in Houston.

"Today marks the beginning of a new era in exploration," said NASA administrator Charles Bolden after the rocket lifted off from the launch pad. "We're handing off to the private sector our transportation to the International Space Station so that NASA can focus on what we do best - exploring even deeper into our solar system, with missions to an asteroid and Mars on the horizon."

For his part, South African billionaire Elon Musk, founder, chief executive and lead designer of SpaceX, told a press conference that, after all the delays and disappointments, "when it worked ... and they (his engineers) saw their handiwork in space and operating as it should, there was tremendous elation. For us, it's like winning the Super Bowl."

If all goes as planned, on the third day of its mission the Dragon, which is carrying more than a ton of food, clothing and laboratory equipment, will dock at the ISS for about 18 days.

The capsule is built to transport 3.3 tons of cargo, but since this is a trial run, it is carrying only important but not critical goods, NASA said.

What is new and most significant about this mission is that the ISS, in which the United States has invested some $50 billion, and the six astronauts manning it, will receive the first supplies ever transported there in the spacecraft of a private company.

The 40-year-old Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, was co-founder of the online payment system PayPal, and is chairman, product architect and CEO of Tesla Motors, which makes electric cars.

Space exploration, which took off during the Cold War, has chiefly been related to military programs of a few governments, and up to now only spacecraft developed by the governments of the United States, Europe, Japan and Russia have docked at the ISS.

But among those spacecraft only the shuttles, and now the Dragon, have had the capability of bringing back to Earth significant volumes of the scientific experiments conducted on the ISS. EFE