SpaceX shoots for Feb. 7 launch to space station

CBS News

Pending final tests and checkout, NASA has agreed to let Space Exploration Technologies -- SpaceX -- combine two test flights of the company's unmanned Dragon cargo ship into a single mission, aiming for a launch Feb. 7 to kick off a long-awaited fight to the International Space Station.

The primary goal of the demonstration mission is to test the capsule's autonomous navigation and control systems before beginning routine commercial flights to deliver critical supplies to the lab complex.

An artist's rendering of a SpaceX Dragon cargo craft approaching the International Space Station. (Credit: SpaceX)
"Pending all of the final safety reviews and testing, SpaceX will send its Dragon spacecraft to rendezvous with the International Space Station in less than two months," Lori Garver, NASA's deputy administrator, said Friday. "So it's the opening of that new commercial cargo delivery era for ISS."

Boosted into low-Earth orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the Dragon capsule will rendezvous with the space station two days after launch and carry out a series of tests to verify its software and control systems are working properly before NASA flight controllers give clearance for final approach.

If all goes well, the Dragon spacecraft will pull up to within about 30 feet of the lab complex Feb. 10 or 11 and wait for the station's robot arm to lock on and pull it in for a docking at the Earth-facing port of the forward Harmony module. The arm will be operated by Expedition 30 commander Dan Burbank, who arrived at the lab last month, and Donald Pettit, scheduled for launch Dec. 21 aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.

Assuming an on-time launch and berthing, the Dragon capsule will remain attached to the station for two weeks before the robot arm swings back into action pull the spacecraft away, setting the stage for an automated re-entry, splashdown and recovery.

"This is a critical capability because with the retiring of the space shuttle we have now lost the ability to carry very big loads of cargo to the station and to return cargo from the station," Burbank said in a NASA interview. "So what we've done is we phased into basically a new chapter here where NASA is going to solicit and contract with commercial providers to do exactly that."

NASA has ordered eight space station resupply flights from Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., under a contract valued at $1.9 billion. Initial test flights are expected next year. SpaceX, headquartered in Hawthorne, Calif., has a $1.6 billion contract with the space agency to provide 12 cargo flights to the station for delivery of more than 44,000 pounds of equipment and supplies. The contract may be expanded to cover additional flights, boosting its value to some $3.1 billion.

Three test flights were planned by SpaceX under a separate contract valued at up to $396 million. The first flight was successfully carried out last December when a Dragon capsule was lofted into orbit and guided to a successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, the first commercial spacecraft ever recovered from orbit.

As originally envisioned, the second test flight would have tested rendezvous procedures and included a close-approach to the station, but berthing would have been deferred until the third flight.

SpaceX has been lobbying for months to combine the second and third test flights into a single mission and after a meeting Thursday between senior NASA managers and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Bill Gerstenmaier, director of space operations for NASA, gave the go ahead.

"SpaceX has made incredible progress over the last several months preparing Dragon for its mission to the space station," he said in a statement. "There is still a significant amount of critical work to be completed before launch, but the teams have a sound plan to complete it and are prepared for unexpected challenges."

Said Garver: "Our partners -- SpaceX and Orbital Sciences -- are marking significant progress in demonstrating their systems. NASA has invested significant money, $800 million, in these efforts. So we are very, very pleased to announce, just today, that we have set the target date ... for SpaceX's second Commercial Orbital Transportation Services demonstration."