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A test flight of the Falcon 9 rocket.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches on a test flight in 2010.

Photograph courtesy Chris Thompson, SpaceX

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Published May 18, 2012

This weekend, SpaceX is poised to launch the first commercial spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), a feat previously performed by only a few governments.

If all goes as planned, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket will lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida around 4:55 am ET. The rocket will carry an unmanned version of the private firm's Dragon space capsule.

Stuffed with cargo for the ISS crew, the gumdrop-shaped capsule should separate from the rocket components approximately ten minutes after launch.

Over the next several days, Dragon will undergo a gauntlet of test maneuvers and systems demonstrations before being allowed to berth with the space station next Tuesday.

"If it fails one of the steps—depending on which step it fails and what its fuel reserves are at the time—it may have the opportunity to try again," said Robert Pearlman, editor of the space-history and artifacts website collectSPACE.com.

Pearlman called the Dragon test mission a potentially historic milestone for the future of spaceflight. (Also see "Virgin Galactic Unveils WhiteKnightTwo Space Plane.")

"It could set the stage for not just a series of cargo deliveries," he said, "but for American astronaut deliveries to the space station, as well as eventually establish a commercial spaceflight industry here in the United States outside of just satellite launches."

(Related: Will SpaceX also send humans to Mars?)

The test launch was originally scheduled for April 30, but it's been delayed multiple times to give SpaceX more time to perfect its automated flight software.

"Everyone at SpaceX is excited for this mission," said company spokesperson Kirstin Brost Grantham. "You take on a certain amount of risk when you are trying to be the first to do something this big, but we can't wait to try."

How to Catch a Dragon

One of Dragon's most crucial tests will be to determine whether its piloting software can follow instructions from astronauts aboard the ISS in case they decide to abort the vehicle's approach to the space station.

"If Dragon is near the space station and something goes wrong, you want the astronauts to be able to say 'abort' and have the spacecraft leave without damaging anything," Brost Grantham said.

If Dragon passes the abort test, a robotic arm attached to the ISS will snatch the capsule and bring it in for berthing. In the future, Dragon will be able to dock with the space station under its own power, Brost Grantham said.

(Related: "Robot Arm to Grab Robotic Ship—A Space Station First.")

Before it berths, collectSPACE.com's Pearlman added, Dragon will have to perform one last test.

"Upon final approach, when it comes within a distance that the [robotic] arm can reach it, it will have to demonstrate that it can actually stay there and be stable in orbit without causing trouble to the arm or the station or itself."

Dragon to Bring Back Experiments, Old Gloves

Because this mission is primarily a test demonstration, Dragon will not be carrying any essential items to the space station or back to Earth.

For example, the launch manifest includes clothing for astronauts, extra food, and laptop batteries. The return payload will include hardware from completed space station experiments and old space suit gloves from past ISS inhabitants.

(Related: "Astronauts' Fingernails Falling Off Due to Glove Design.")

If SpaceX passes this test, NASA will give the company permission to fulfill its $1.6-billion-dollar contract to ferry supplies—and eventually astronauts—to and from the ISS.

That's a big deal, Pearlman said, because, ever since NASA's space shuttles were retired last July, the agency has had no way of returning significant amounts of material back to Earth.

For now NASA can transport items to the space station using automated transfer vehicles operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

But these transporters are designed for one-way trips only and burn up on reentry, making return cargo trips impossible.

The Russian Soyuz spacecraft—currently NASA's only way of transporting astronauts to the ISS—does have the ability to return to Earth, but "its primary function is to return humans, not payload," Pearlman said.

(See "After Space Shuttle, Does U.S. Have a Future in Space?")

Manned Private Flights by 2015?

SpaceX's Brost Grantham added that while the company is confident in its vehicles and software, success is not guaranteed.

"Every step of this mission is incredibly complicated," she said. "Whatever happens, we're going to learn more from this mission. We know that, because it's a test flight, it's inherently risky ... so it's entirely possible we're unable to accomplish all of our objectives, but we will learn from that."

(Related pictures: "Homemade Personal Spacecraft Lifts Off.")

SpaceX predicts that the first manned Dragon flights could occur as early as 2015. But before that happens, the spacecraft will need to be outfitted with more environmental controls and crew accommodations, something the company is already working on, according to Brost Grantham.

"A few months ago we had NASA astronauts come out and do a test of the accommodations to make sure it meets their needs," she said.

SpaceX will also have to demonstrate a successful launch-abort system for Dragon before NASA will allow it to be used as a crew-transport vehicle.

"If there's an emergency, there will be these superthrusters on the side of the spacecraft that turn on and will immediately carry the astronauts a safe distance from the rocket," Brost Grantham said.

So far, NASA and SpaceX appear to have a good working relationship, collectSPACE.com's Pearlman added.

"I think NASA and SpaceX are working just as well as NASA and Boeing, NASA and Lockheed, and NASA and any of its other suppliers."

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