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SpaceX, NASA confirm all systems are go for historic mission

May 18, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan
  • A 2010 launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
A 2010 launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Chris Thompson / SpaceX )

The countdown has begun for SpaceX's historic mission to send a spacecraft into orbit to dock with the International Space Station.

SpaceX, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is due to launch its Falcon 9 rocket early Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in a demonstration for NASA. Officials of the space agency and SpaceX held a news conference Friday at the cape to discuss the mission.

Three days after launch, SpaceX will make history if its Dragon capsule docks with the space station, marking the first time that a privately built craft has done so.

"If successful, there's no doubt this is a historic flight," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said at the news conference. 

The launch will be webcast on NASA TV starting about an hour before the scheduled liftoff, which is now set for 4:55 a.m. EDT.

SpaceX and NASA said that the rocket, capsule, and onboard software have been tested and are ready to go.

The launch date has been pushed back several times and the weather forecast for the launch time is favorable. The South Florida region has been riddled with thunderstorms in recent weeks.

"I think we'll be biting our fingers off" during the mission, Shotwell said.

SpaceX was profiled in The Times on May 15.  Here's an interactive graphic on SpaceX's planned mission that appeared along with the story.

The unmanned docking mission to the space station is intended to prove to NASA that SpaceX’s rocket and space capsule are ready to take on the task of hauling cargo for the space agency now that the space shuttle fleet has been retired.

SpaceX aims to do a flyby of the $100-billion space station and then approach it so the space station crew can snag it with a robotic arm and dock it.

The company already has a $1.6-billion contract to haul cargo in 12 flights to the space station for NASA. If the upcoming mission is successful, SpaceX would start to fulfill the contract in earnest.

SpaceX also plans to carry astronauts to the space station one day. Shotwell said the company could do this sometime in 2015.

The company makes its Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket at a sprawling facility in Hawthorne that once was used to assemble fuselage sections for Boeing 747s. The hardware is put on a big rig and trucked to Cape Canaveral for launches.

In December 2010, SpaceX became the first private company to send a spacecraft into orbit and return it  intact. The company, which now employs around 1,800 people, has been planning the upcoming docking mission ever since.

No matter what SpaceX accomplishes during the mission, Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA's commercial orbital transportation services, said he's proud of the company.

He declared that SpaceX represents "American entrepreneurship at its finest."

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Follow W.J. Hennigan on Twitter @wjhenn

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