NASA Sets Date for Dragon's Space Station Debut

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A spaceship developed by privately owned Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is scheduled for launch Feb. 7 on an unprecedented mission to the International Space Station, NASA announced Friday.

The U.S. space agency has been working with two firms — SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp — to develop cargo ships that can ferry supplies to the space station, following the retirement of the space shuttles this summer.

SpaceX debuted its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule during a two-orbit mission last December. It now has the green light from NASA to combine its next two demonstration missions into a single flight and berth at the space station, if all goes as planned during the flight.

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“This mission will mark a historic milestone in the future of spaceflight,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement. “We appreciate NASA’s continued support and their partnership in this process.”

Following launch from SpaceX’s launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the Falcon 9 rocket is expected to put the Dragon capsule on a path that will lead to its rendezvous with the space station two days later.

A series of flybys, tests and maneuvers will then take place to demonstrate that Dragon can be fully controlled and that the mission could be aborted if necessary.

If Dragon performs as designed, it will position itself within reach of the station’s robotic arm. Astronauts aboard the outpost will then use the crane to grab onto Dragon and attach it to a berthing slip on the Harmony connecting node.

The capsule could remain docked for two weeks or longer.

If the mission is successful, SpaceX would begin working on its $1.6 billion contract to deliver cargo to the station for NASA. If not, a third demonstration flight is planned.

Orbital plans to debut its Taurus 2 rocket and Cygnus capsule next year.

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Image: An artist’s impression of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft being grabbed by the space station’s robotic arm. Credit: SpaceX