Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the Hawthorne-based rocket venture better known as SpaceX, reached a milestone Monday: It received the Federal Aviation Administration's first-ever commercial license to reenter a spacecraft from Earth orbit.
The privately owned company needed the certification before its scheduled Dec. 7 maiden launch of the Dragon space capsule, which is being designed to carry cargo and crew for NASA.
The Dragon capsule is considered a contender for the job of ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station after the space shuttle program is mothballed in 2011.
NASA has already awarded SpaceX $1.6 billion in contracts to transport cargo to the International Space Station on the Dragon, starting as early as next year.
"With this license in hand, SpaceX can proceed with its launch of the Dragon capsule,” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said in a statement. “The flight of Dragon will be an important step toward commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station.”
In next month’s test launch, the Dragon capsule will be affixed to SpaceX’s massive Falcon 9 rocket, which made its first flight in June from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The Dragon capsule is expected to orbit the Earth, reenter the atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean.
The capsule has been undergoing drop tests over the Pacific near Morro Bay, Calif., 45 miles northwest of Vandenberg Air Force Base. Watch the video above.
SpaceX employs more than 1,100 people, most in California. The firm makes its rockets in a sprawling facility in Hawthorne that once housed the fuselage assembly for Boeing Co.'s 747 jumbo jet.
-- W.J. Hennigan
Video: SpaceX conducted the Dragon capsule high-altitude drop test Aug. 12, at an altitude of 14,000 feet, off the coast of Morro Bay, Calif.