By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL Fla (Reuters) - An unmanned Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sunday to deliver a cargo ship to the International Space Station for NASA.
The 208-foot (63-meter) tall booster, built and launched by privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, bolted off its seaside launch pad at 1:52 a.m. EDT/0552 GMT, slicing the night-time sky with a bright plume of light as it headed into orbit.
Ten minutes later, the Dragon cargo capsule perched on top of the rocket was released to begin a two-day journey to the space station, a $100 billion research complex that flies about 260 miles (420 km) above Earth.
The spaceship is loaded with more than 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg) of equipment, supplies and science experiments, including 20 live mice for medical experiments, a prototype 3-D printer and an instrument to monitor ocean wind speeds.
The mission, which was delayed one day by poor weather, is the fourth under the company's 12-flight $1.6 billion NASA contract for cargo delivery services.
Sunday's launch was the second in two weeks for California-based SpaceX, the fastest turnaround between missions since Falcon 9 rockets began flying in June 2010.
"We are ramping up for that launch rate, and actually even more than that," Hans Koenigsmann, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) vice president of mission assurance, told reporters at a prelaunch news conference.
The company has a backlog of nearly 50 launches, worth nearly $5 billion, on its manifest, said SpaceX spokesman John Taylor.
Last week, SpaceX won a second NASA contract, worth up to $2.6 billion, to upgrade and fly its Dragon capsules for astronauts – and potentially paying tourists as well. A crewed Dragon spaceship is targeted for a debut test flight in 2016.
NASA also awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract to develop and fly a second space taxi. The price difference is primarily the cost of the launcher. [ID:nL1N0RI2XY]
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets sell for about $61 million. Boeing plans to buy Atlas 5 rockets, which cost about $150 million. United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, manufactures and sells Atlas 5, which predominantly are used for U.S. military missions.
SpaceX, owned and operated by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, is gunning for that business as well. A lawsuit is pending in federal court contesting the U.S. Air Force's latest non-competed award to United Launch Alliance.
So far, the company's Falcon 9 rockets have flown 13 times, all successfully.
Dragon is due to reach the space station at 7:04 a.m. EDT/1104 GMT on Tuesday.
(Editing by David Clarke)