Private Spacecraft Plans Landmark Docking With International Space Station

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Fly me to the moon? Sure thing.

Private spaceflight company Space Exploration (SpaceX) has received tentative approval from NASA to send its Dragon cargo craft on a landmark first mission to the International Space Station on November 30, which would make it the first private company to dock with the space station.

A successful docking on December 9 would be a dramatic validation of NASA's plan to replace the now-retired space shuttle fleet with cheaper, private vehicles -- though how the space agency would send astronauts to space remains an open question.

The Dragon capsule, one of several vehicles competing to haul cargo for NASA into space, had planned two test missions for this winter. One would gauge the capsule's ability to do a "drive-by" of the space station, where it would approach close enough to test navigation and communication gear. A second mission would test the craft's ability to dock.

But SpaceX is ready now, the company argues. Why not combine the two and hit the milestone earlier?

“We technically have agreed with SpaceX that we want to combine those flights,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, said at a July 21 media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We are doing all the planning to go ahead and have those missions combined, but we haven’t given them formal approval yet.”

If approved, SpaceX would deliver cargo to the space station in early December. And if successful, it would validate NASA's plan to replace the shuttle with dramatically cheaper private spacecraft.

SpaceX will charge NASA at least $1.6 billion for 12 cargo shipments to the ISS, or $133 million per flight. The space shuttle costs exceed $1 billion per flight.

SpaceX is not alone, however: Orbital Sciences Corp. also has a contract with NASA to supply cargo ships. And it plans to launch the Cygnus resupply ship into space in February 2012.

David Thompson, chairman and CEO of Orbital Sciences, recently noted that the addition of the final Atlantis flight allowed NASA to stock up on food and other consumables, giving private industry a little wiggle room -- but only a little.

"This most recent space shuttle mission ... was able to stock up the space station with supplies and consumables to buy some time for both us and SpaceX to get our cargo systems operational, but the pressure is on to get both of these delivery systems proven and into service over the course of the next year," Thompson told industry blog Spaceflight Now.

SpaceX's craft consists of two parts: the Falcon 9 rocket, a multistage reusable rocket capable of lifting significant amounts of cargo, and Dragon, a reusable space capsule that will carry the cargo, dock and parachute back to Earth, ultimately splash-landing in the ocean.

The first and second stages of the Falcon 9 rocket for SpaceX's cargo flight are already at the company's Cape Canaveral launch pad. The Dragon spacecraft is due to arrive in August or September, the news site noted.

"We're doing all the planning to go ahead and combine those missions," Gerstenmaier said. "The capsule is being designed that way and the software is being built that way, and we're just kind of waiting for the right formal time where we collectively agree that this is the right thing to go forward."

A half-century of America sending Americans into space came to an end July 21, when space shuttle Atlantis became the final shuttle to touch down from space.

"Job well done, America," mission control told Atlantis pilot Doug Hurley and the thousands watching and listening to the landing in the pre-dawn dark. Russian space agency Roskosmos used the occasion to give a nod to America's contributions -- and signal the beginning of the era of its spaceships instead.

"From today, the era of the Soyuz has started in manned space flight, the era of reliability," Roskomos said.

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. may see things differently.