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SpaceX poised to make history with space station docking

December 9, 2011 |  1:45 pm

Spacex

Hawthorne-based commercial space venture SpaceX is set to send its Dragon space capsule to dock with the $100-billion International Space Station -- a feat that's been accomplished only by the world's wealthiest nations.

NASA announced Friday that the private company, formally named Space Exploration Technologies Corp., will aim to launch its 18-story Falcon 9 rocket Feb. 7, pending completion of final safety reviews, testing and verification.

In a statement, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the mission "will mark a historic milestone in the future of spaceflight.”

It’s also a mission that takes the company one step closer to cashing in on a $1.6-billion contract with NASA. The contract is to haul cargo in 12 flights to the space station for NASA.

If the February mission is successful, SpaceX would start in earnest to fulfill the contract. This would make the company the front-runner for the potentially multibillion-dollar job of ferrying astronauts to and from the space station now that NASA’s fleet of space shuttles has been retired.

While nearly everyone's eyes were on the final space shuttle flight in July, SpaceX engineers and technicians at Cape Canaveral, Fla., were readying the rocket that will lift the Dragon capsule into orbit.

The company had planned to dock with the space station this year but ran into delays.

SpaceX makes the Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket at a sprawling facility in Hawthorne that once housed the fuselage assembly for Boeing Co.'s 747 jumbo jet. The hardware is put on a big rig and sent to Cape Canaveral for launches.

Last December, SpaceX became the first private company to blast a spacecraft into Earth's orbit and have it return intact. Up to that point only five countries and one intergovernmental agency had been able to launch a spacecraft and have it successfully orbit and reenter the Earth's atmosphere.

If its capsule docks with the space station, SpaceX will join an even more exclusive club of the U.S., Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency.

“SpaceX is on the forefront of demonstrating how a partnership between the government and private industry can lead to new capabilities and provide a large return on investment,” said Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA’s program manager for commercial transportation services.

 

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-- W.J. Hennigan

twitter.com/wjhenn

Photo: SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is prepared in its hangar at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Credit: Al Diaz / Miami Herald

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