Hawthorne-based rocket venture Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, is planning to send a rocket into space carrying a capsule that will dock with the International Space Station later this year. It is a mission that takes the company one step closer to cashing in on a $1.6-billion contract with NASA.
In a statement, SpaceX revealed that the space agency has approved a mission in which its Dragon space capsule would dock with the space station.
"NASA has given us a Nov. 30, 2011 launch date, which should be followed nine days later by Dragon berthing at the ISS," the company said.
SpaceX makes the Dragon capsule and 18-story Falcon 9 rocket at a sprawling facility in Hawthorne that once housed the fuselage assembly for Boeing Co.'s 747 jumbo jet. However, the hardware is put on a big rig and sent to Cape Canaveral, Fla., for launches.
Last December, SpaceX became the first private company to blast a spacecraft into Earth's orbit and have it return intact. The unmanned flight was intended to show NASA that SpaceX could handle the task of carrying cargo into space.
If it pulls off a trip to the space station, it will be the clear frontrunner take over the responsibility of running cargo missions and possibly carrying astronauts to the space station for NASA now that the space shuttle is retired.
Think of it as a space taxi.
SpaceX already has a $1.6-billion contract to haul cargo in 12 flights to the space station for NASA. If the November mission is successful, the company would start in earnest to fulfill the contract.
"This next mission represents a huge milestone not only for SpaceX, but also for NASA and the U.S. space program," the company said.
While nearly everyone's eyes were on the final flight space shuttle flight in July, SpaceX engineers and technicians at Cape Canaveral were readying the rocket that will lift the capsule into orbit.
The rocket has just two successful test launches.
-- W.J. Hennigan
Video: On December 8, 2010, SpaceX became the first commercial company in history to recover a spacecraft from orbit.