Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, launched the first of 12 cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday, restoring U.S. access to the orbital outpost for the first time since the space shuttles were retired last year.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule blasted off at 8:35 p.m. EDT on Sunday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, just south of the NASA’s now-dormant shuttle launch pads.


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The 157-foot tall rocket tore through warm, partly cloudy skies, arcing out over the ocean as it headed into orbit for a Wednesday rendezvous with the space station.

The Dragon cargo capsule is filled with 882 pounds of food, clothing, science gear and equipment for the station, including a freezer to transport medical samples to and from orbit. For the ride up, the freezer also was stocked with a treat for the crew — chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream.

SpaceX nailed a practice run to the space station in May, clearing the way for the company to begin working off its $1.6 billion contract with NASA to fly supplies to the station, a $100 billion research laboratory that is owned and operated by 15 nations.

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Since the shuttle’s retirement last year, NASA had been dependent on Russian, European and Japanese freighters to keep the station stocked. SpaceX is one of two firms it hired to fly cargo to the station. The second company, Orbital Sciences Corp., plans to debut its Antares rocket later this year.

If all goes as planned, Dragon will be reloaded with about one ton of returning science experiments and equipment no longer needed aboard the station and sent back to Earth on Oct. 28.

Image: The Falcon 9′s Merlin engines light up the launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: NASA TV/SpaceX