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SpaceX capsule on track to dock with space station

May 25, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times

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

The hookup was scheduled to occur after 11 p.m. PDT Thursday.

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

SpaceX, officially named 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 would be ready to berth with the space station.

The crew aboard the space station also monitored the Dragon's fly-by and, in a key moment, successfully 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 Thursday morning effort was complete, the 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 maneuver enabled the spacecraft to be ready for the docking.

As planned, the crew was prepared to grab the spacecraft with a robotic arm and pull it in for the docking.

Once docked at the space station, the station crew is to unload the half-ton of food, water and other supplies on the capsule.

After the Dragon carries out its mission this month, it will splash down in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles west of Southern California. The craft will deploy parachutes to slow its descent after entering Earth's atmosphere.

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