The SpaceX has launched the Dragon capsule designed to carry people from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The mission is uncrewed for this flight, but if it goes well, NASA is likely to approve the system for regular astronaut use from later this year.
The company’s founder Elon Musk said this could be the first step towards opening space travel to commercial customers.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon crew capsule lifted off from Kennedy’s historic Pad 39A at the precise planned time of 02:49 EST.
The 11-minute ascent put the Dragon on a path to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) on March 3.
Because this is just a demonstration, there are no astronauts aboard – but there is a “test dummy”.
Dressed in a spacesuit and sitting next to a window, this anthropomorphic simulator is fitted with sensors around the head, neck, and spine.
It will gather data on the type of forces that humans will experience when they get to ride in the spacecraft.
SpaceX has nicknamed the dummy “Ripley” – after the Sigourney Weaver character in the Alien movies.
For the SpaceX, this mission is a key milestone in its short history. Elon Musk, a technology entrepreneur and engineer, set up the organization with the specific intention of taking people into space.
Elon Musk told reporters immediately after the launch: “It’s been 17 years to get to this point, from 2002 to now. To be frank, I’m a little emotionally exhausted because it was super stressful.
“Our focus has been on serving NASA’s needs but once Dragon is in regular operation, I think we will seek commercial customers of which the NASA administrator, and NASA in general, has been very supportive.”
He said those customers could include private citizens going to the ISS, just as they have done on Soyuz vehicles in the past.
Separately, Elon Musk is developing a much bigger system – which he calls the Starship and Super Heavy rocket – to transport people to the Moon and Mars.
The Dragon crew capsule is a variant on the ISS cargo freighter flown by SpaceX.
Upgrades include life-support systems, obviously; and more powerful thrusters to push the vessel to safety if something goes wrong with a rocket during an ascent to orbit.
It also has four parachutes instead of the freighter’s three to control the return to Earth.
Dragon crew capsules will splashdown in the Atlantic not far from Kennedy.
NASA is essentially now contracting out crew transport to SpaceX.
Whereas in the past, NASA engineers would have top-down control of all aspects of vehicle design and the agency would own and operate the hardware – the relationship with industry has been put on a completely new footing.
Today, NASA sets broad requirements and industry is given plenty of latitude in how it meets those demands.
After being taken to orbit, the Dragon makes its own way to the station using onboard thrusters.
One of the big differences between this mission and standard cargo flights is the mode of approach and attachment to the ISS. Freighters come up under the orbiting lab and are grappled by a robotic arm and pulled into a berthing position.
ISS astronauts will be watching closely to see that the capsule behaves as it should.
The Dragon is expected to stay at the station until March 8. The current plan has it undocking, firing its thrusters to come out of orbit, and splashing down at roughly 13:45 GMT.