Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the Hawthorne rocket venture better known as SpaceX, garnered the first commercial license the Federal Aviation Administration has ever granted for a privately owned spacecraft to return from Earth orbit.
The company needed the certification before the maiden launch of its Dragon space capsule, scheduled for Dec. 7. The Dragon was designed to carry cargo and crew for NASA. It might also take tourists to space once a commercial space station is constructed.
The Dragon is being considered for the job of ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station after the space shuttle program is mothballed next year.
NASA already has awarded SpaceX $1.6 billion in contracts to transport cargo to the International Space Station on the Dragon, starting next year.
"The flight of Dragon will be an important step toward commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station," NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said.
In its test launch, the Dragon capsule will soar into space atop SpaceX's massive Falcon 9 rocket, which reached orbit in 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.
SpaceX employs more than 1,100 people, most in California. The firm makes its rockets in a sprawling Hawthorne facility that once housed the fuselage assembly for Boeing Co.'s 747 jumbo jet.