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SpaceX hits milestones; capsule on track to dock with space station

May 24, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan
  • At left, the International Space Station passes in front of the sun as seen in an image taken from Salgotarjan, northeast of Budapest, Hungary.
At left, the International Space Station passes in front of the sun as seen… (Peter Komka / EPA )

SpaceX's cone-shaped space capsule performed a series of delicate maneuvers around the International Space Station that proved to NASA officials that it's ready to move in for a historic docking attempt.

"We're looking good across the board," said John Couluris, SpaceX lead mission director, in a Thursday news briefing.

SpaceX, officially known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is aiming to become the world's first private firm to dock a craft with the space station. The mission is considered the first test of NASA's plan to outsource space missions to private companies now that its fleet of space shuttles is retired.

The Hawthorne company aims to prove to NASA that its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule are ready to take on the task of hauling cargo — and eventually astronauts — for the space agency.

On Thursday, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule came within 1.5 miles of the space station while orbiting Earth at about 17,000 mph. It underwent a series of tests that checked onboard sensors and flight systems to determine whether the vehicle is ready to berth with the space station on Friday.

The crew aboard the space station also monitored the Dragon's fly-by and, in a key moment, sent a command to the capsule to turn on its strobe light.

"There was no deviation from our preflight plan," said NASA Flight Director Holly Ridings. "There's still a lot of new things the team has to perform and the vehicle has to perform."

Once the fly-under was complete, Dragon fired its engines and began a loop out in front, above and then behind the station in a racetrack-like pattern at a distance of between 4 and 6 miles, the company said. This set the spacecraft up for the Friday's docking.

If all goes well, the crew will try to grab the spacecraft with a robotic arm on Friday and pull it in for the historic docking. The event will be webcast on NASA TV starting at 11 p.m. PDT Thursday.

INTERACTIVE: SpaceX's demonstration mission

Not everything went to plan Thursday. Astronaut Don Pettit told NASA mission control in Houston that he was experiencing some problems with the space station's cameras and onboard monitors, which are expected to play an important role in Dragon's docking.

To fix the issue, Ridings said that Pettit had to put the computers through a "reboot process like you do with your laptop."

The Dragon was launched Tuesday aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., to start the demonstration flight to the space station.

Founded in 2002 by Los Angeles billionaire Elon Musk, SpaceX makes the Dragon and Falcon 9 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.

The company, with about 1,800 employees, has a $1.6-billion contract to haul cargo in 12 flights to the space station for NASA. If the current test mission is successful, SpaceX will begin fulfilling the contract later this year.

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