CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - For the first time, a private company on Wednesday successfully launched and brought back to Earth a spacecraft, opening a new era of commercial exploitation of space.

The unmanned capsule named Dragon was launched by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX. It splashed down in the Pacific, 500 miles off Mexico, at 2:02 p.m. after a flight of just over three hours that included two orbits of Earth. Waiting boats closed in to pluck it out of the water.

A Falcon 9 rocket, with the capsule perched on its top, had thundered off the launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 10:43 a.m., soaring into a cloudless sky. Just over nine minutes later, the company announced that Dragon had separated from the rocket's second stage; four minutes later, the company confirmed Earth orbit.

Not long afterward, NASA's mission control office in Houston notified the crew of the space station that Dragon was in orbit.

Responded station commander Scott Kelly, an American: "Great news. Great to hear and congrats to the whole SpaceX team for achieving something that is very hard to do. We are very impressed up here."

Falcon 9 - the company's gleaming-white, 157-foot-tall flagship - sent the Apollo-like capsule 187 miles into space. Its return made it the first commercial spacecraft to orbit the planet and survive the fiery reentry.

Even before Wednesday's launch, SpaceX founder and chief executive officer Elon Musk had pronounced the day historic.

"When Dragon returns, whether on this mission or a future one, it will herald the dawn of an incredibly exciting new era in space travel," Musk said.

Musk started the company with the fortune he earned from selling PayPal, the application he cocreated that enables consumers to pay for goods they buy over the Internet. He also is a founder of the electric-car manufacturing company Tesla Motors.

He said Falcon 9, which had one successful previous launch, cost $400 million to develop.

NASA and SpaceX had originally planned to launch Dragon on Tuesday, but engineers Monday found two cracks in the nozzle of the Falcon 9 upper-stage engine. The company said it fixed the cause of the cracks - an oscillating vent line - and trimmed off the end of the nozzle where the cracks were located.

NASA has invested more than $240 million to help SpaceX develop the rocket and capsule. After the space shuttle's scheduled retirement next year, SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to fly at least 12 cargo missions to and from the International Space Station. The company would like to eventually transport humans as well.

Wednesday's flight was the first under a NASA demonstration program to show that SpaceX can launch Dragon, maneuver it in orbit, and bring it back. A final demonstration sometime next year will have Dragon approaching the space station.

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said she expected Dragon to make its first delivery - its capacity is 13,228 pounds of cargo and as many as seven astronauts - to the station by November 2011.

Returning Dragon to Earth was a major feat, never before accomplished except by a government space agency.

"As hard as it is to get something to orbit, it can be harder to bring it down safely," said Kevin Brogan, the company's propulsion engineer.

The Dragon circled Earth twice at speeds greater than 17,000 miles per hour before reentering the atmosphere and landing. The flight tested the capsule's steering thrusters and other systems, as well as its braking rockets and parachute.

The Federal Aviation Administration, charged with regulating the commercial spaceflight industry, determined that SpaceX met its safety standards, meaning the odds of casualties from Dragon's launch and landing were 30-in-1 million - the same as for similar NASA and military space operations.

NASA has just two shuttle missions remaining, in February and April. The space agency hopes to get funding for a third and final flight next summer, to restock the orbiting lab in case the commercial launch companies fall behind.