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Dragon to Venture to Space Station

  • Suzanne Presto

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It's a historic mission that has been years in the making. SpaceX, a private company that has received more than $380 million in funding from NASA, is gearing up to launch an unmanned spacecraft to the International Space Station.

On Friday afternoon, weather officials said conditions were favorable for the pre-dawn launch Saturday from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Gwynne Shotwell is the president of SpaceX, which developed and owns the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule. Speaking alongside NASA officials at a news briefing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida Friday afternoon, she said the SpaceX team is in awe of the opportunity before them.

"You know, I think we're going to be biting off our fingers between now and hour 75," Shotwell said, referring to the nerves SpaceX employees would be coping with during the the first three days of the milestone mission.

"Launch is obviously key. You've got to get Dragon successfully to orbit, so that's a pretty nerve-wracking timeframe," continued Shotwell. "This is actually a difficult mission from the perspective of the launch window. We have a near-instantaneous launch window, so if by 4:55 am [Eastern] and a couple of seconds, we haven't lifted off, we will have to scrub."

That is because the space capsule is trying to meet up with a moving target. The International Space Station is zooming around the Earth every 90 minutes. Shotwell explained that if the rocket does not launch at exactly the right time, there would be massive propellant requirements in order to catch up to the space station.

If the company is successful, it will join the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan as the only entities that have sent a spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station.

Shotwell says the company's nearly 1,900 employees probably will not be getting much sleep between the launch and the Dragon's docking. That is set for the third day of the mission, if all goes smoothly.

The unmanned Dragon spacecraft will carry 544 kilograms of cargo, including commemorative patches, clothing, meals and student experiments. Nothing is considered critical to the space station's crew.

Phil McAlister, the acting director of NASA's commercial spaceflight development program, praised the partnership between the government agency and the California-based company. He said opening up space to non-government entities is necessary for the future of exploration.

"Once we get private enterprise and economic interests out to low-Earth orbit, there will be no turning back," said McAlister.

NASA and SpaceX officials alike emphasize that this is a test flight, so they are viewing it as a learning opportunity.

SpaceX says it hopes to carry people into space within three years.