The US company SpaceX has became the first commercial outfit to send its own spacecraft toward the International Station with the launch of the cargo-bearing Dragon capsule.

"Three, two, one and launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, as NASA turns to the private sector to resupply the International Space Station," said NASA commentator George Diller, as the spacecraft blasted off at 3:44 am (0744 GMT) on Tuesday.

The test flight, which should include a fly-by and berthing with the station in the coming days, aims to show that private industry can restore US access to the ISS after NASA retired its space shuttle fleet last year. 

Al Jazeera's Andy Gallacher, reporting from Florida, said this is the first time in history that a commercial, private spacecraft will plan to rendezvous with the International Space Station.

"A new era in space exploration has begun," he said.

"There is a lot at stake here for SpaceX - something like $1.6bn contract with NASA. The shuttle programme ended last year. This is the future for NASA. This is the way America will stay in orbit."

Our correspondent said the involvement of private companies would help the US government reduce the money spent on space exploration.

But he added that "history won't be made until that Dragon capsule actually rendezvous with the International Space Station, which won't happen for another 72 hours and that's perhaps the trickiest part of this entire operation".

No humans are traveling aboard the Dragon, but six astronauts are already at the $100-billion space lab to help the capsule latch on, to unload supplies and then restock the capsule with cargo to take back to Earth.

The mission was delayed on Saturday due to a faulty engine valve in the rocket's main engine, but was repaired the same day.

California-based SpaceX, owned by billionaire Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, is the first of several US competitors to try sending spacecraft to the ISS with the goal of restoring US access to space for human travelers by 2015.

The company successfully test-launched its Falcon 9 rocket in June 2010, then made history with its Dragon launch in December of that year, becoming the first commercial outfit to send a spacecraft into orbit and back.

Its reusable Dragon capsule has been built to carry both cargo and up to seven crew members.

Until now, only the space agencies of Russia, Japan and Europe have been able to send supply ships to the ISS.

The three-decade US shuttle program, which ferried astronauts and cargo to the research outpost, ended for good in 2011, leaving Russia as the sole taxi to the ISS until private industry comes up with a replacement.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies