Yesterday Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, reached orbit with the first privately built liquid fueled satellite launcher.

It’s a huge boost for commercial spaceflight and perhaps the biggest milestone since the 2004 launch of the suborbital rocket plane SpaceShipOne. Just as SpaceShipOne proved that a private company can send people into space, SpaceX has proven that orbital spaceflight need not be the exclusive domain of major government programs.

“Wow, this is a great day for SpaceX,” said CEO Elon Musk in an email after the launch, “and the culmination of an enormous amount of work by a great team. The data shows we achieved a super precise orbit insertion — middle of the bullseye — and then went on to coast and restart the second stage, which was icing on the cake.”

This was SpaceX’s fourth launch attempt. The company attempted its first launch in March 2006, the second in March 2007, and the third this past August. All four launches were made from the company’s launch pad in the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii.

In addition to perfecting its Falcon 1 rockets since its first launch attempt in 2006, SpaceX has expanded into a former Boeing 747 assembly plant in the Los Angeles area, built out a launch facility at the home of the U.S. space program, Cape Canaveral, Florida, and made steady progress on a rocket capable of manned flight, the Falcon 9.

With this launch, of a 364-pound dummy test satellite, orbital space is now officially open for business. This is good news for any company that wants to do business affordably in orbit, including Bigelow Aerospace, which aims to launch the first commercial space station by 2010.

It’s also good news for NASA, which is facing the grim prospect of losing its own access to space with the retiring of the Space Shuttle in 2010 and the possible loss of its Russian launch partner because of renewed tensions between the United States and the Russian Federation.

With the Merlin engines that will power Falcon 9 now proven spaceworthy, SpaceX seems poised to step into the American space-access gap.

“I will have a more complete post launch statement tomorrow,” said Musk in his email, “as right now I’m in a bit of a daze and need to go celebrate :)”

By the way, SpaceX is hiring, big time. When you’re done checking out launch footage at, Musk’s tour of SpaceX’s shop floor, including the production line cranking out Merlin engines at an astonishing rate of one engine per week–more than all the rest of U.S. rocket booster production combined.

The 76 positions open at SpaceX, according to the Careers page on the company website, include spots for engineers trained in:

Rocket engine combustion
Advanced structural design & analysis (composite and metal structures)
Avionics, guidance & control
Embedded real-time programming
Digital and analog electronics including RF electronics

…as well as technicians skilled in:

Launch operations
Composites manufacturing
Electronics assembly (PCB and wire harness)
Structural assembly
Propulsion systems assembly
Quality Assurance