CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX successfully launched its Dragon capsule into orbit and brought it back to Earth on Wednesday, opening a new era in the commercial exploitation — and exploration — of space.

The Dragon capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, about 500 miles off of Mexico, at 2:02 p.m. after a flight that lasted just over three hours and included two orbits of the Earth. Immediately after splashdown, waiting boats closed in and prepared to pluck it out of the water.

A Falcon 9 rocket, with the unmanned Dragon 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 astronaut: “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.”

The 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 re-entry back to Earth.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk started the company with the fortune he earned from selling PayPal, an application he co-created that helps consumers buy goods over the Internet. He said the Falcon 9 cost $400 million to develop.

NASA and SpaceX had originally planned to launch Dragon on Tuesday, but engineers on 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 Dragon 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, and 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 safely back to Earth. A final demonstration sometime next year will have Dragon approaching the space station.

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