Space Exploration Technologies, the first company aiming to reach the International Space Station, got off to a rocking start early Tuesday with the launch of its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The 178-foot tall rocket, which carried a Dragon cargo capsule, lifted off at 3:44 a.m. EDT, arcing out over the Atlantic Ocean as it headed to a preliminary orbit about 200 miles above Earth. Eleven minutes later, Dragon passed its first key test, deploying solar panels needed to power the spacecraft.

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Many more milestones will need to be met before NASA clears Dragon to approach the space station for berthing. If all goes as planned, space station flight engineer Don Pettit is expected to use the station’s robotic crane to pluck Dragon from orbit on Friday and attach it to a docking port.

The capsule is carrying about 1,200 pounds of food, water, clothes and supplies for the station crew. It is scheduled to bring back about 1,300 pounds of gear when it returns to Earth on May 31.

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Dragon is the first privately owned spacecraft to head to the International Space Station. NASA is counting on SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to deliver cargo beginning this year. SpaceX also is in the running to build a space taxi for astronauts.

Watch the launch:

Images: A beautiful launch from Cape Canaveral (top). After stage separation, the second stage Merlin engine lit up, carrying the Dragon capsule to orbit (middle). Credit: NASA TV