U.S. companies help reach milestones for space program

Since the final space shuttle launch in July 2011, you may not know NASA has relied on other countries to get astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station. On Sunday, we witnessed milestones by two American companies designed to change that.

This image provided by Vandenberg Air Force Base shows a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013 as it makes its West Coast debut from Space Launch Complex-4. Michael Peterson,AP Photo/Vandenberg Air Force Base

An upgraded, more powerful Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. SpaceX said it's a test flight that should go a long way to prove it can deliver people as well.

"It's a major milestone for NASA and the International Space Station Project," said CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood. "No question about it."

Harwood said that NASA has been paying around $60 million a seat to fly astronauts on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. But finances weren't the only consideration.

"It's really not about the money," he said. "It would be cheaper to continue to fly with the Russians. NASA wants a U.S. rocket one way or the other, and a U.S. spacecraft to launch American astronauts to the space station. It's a sign of pride, it's a symbol of superpower status."

Harwood said the last shuttle mission in July 2011 left the space station overstocked deliberately, so NASA wouldn't need help getting cargo to the space station -- until now.

On Sunday morning, the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corporation's cargo ship Cygnus successfully docked at the space station.

"When NASA knew they were going to retire the shuttle," said Harwood, "they knew they had to replace its ability to carry cargo to the space station. SpaceX is already flying cargo missions to the station. Now with this successful space flight, Orbital joins the game and that is a big deal NASA. They need both of these spacecrafts to keep the station supplied and operational."