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Why historic SpaceX mission to space station will be so difficult

When SpaceX launches its Falcon 9 rocket Saturday, it will be the beginning of a complex rendezvous with the space station that attempts to test several capabilities in one mission. 

By Staff writer / May 18, 2012

The SpaceX Falcon 9 test rocket is being prepared for launch from Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida Friday.

Pierre DuCharme/REUTERS

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A slender white rocket with a Dragon on top is poised to make spaceflight history. 

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If all goes well, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon cargo capsule will lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:55 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Saturday en route to the International Space Station.

For Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), Saturday's launch begins a crucial set of technical tests for a rocket and spacecraft designed for regular cargo service to International Space Station. That task is itself is a stepping stone to using the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule to send humans to and from the station, as well as future destinations in low-Earth orbit.

For NASA, the mission represents the first test of its new stance as a customer for launch services to low-Earth orbit. No longer is it the organization sitting in the driver's seat from rocket design through launch to landing. Once the Falcon 9 leaves the pad, control of the mission shifts to SpaceX's command center at its Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters. Only when Dragon closes in on the space station will NASA have thumbs-up or thumbs-down say in the test flight's next steps.

Beyond the launch's import for SpaceX and NASA, however, lies its signal regarding the future of the United States as a truly spacefaring nation, some analysts suggest. It's a future in which access to space for research, commerce, or even relaxation opens to more than relative handful astronauts sporting space-agency logos on their jumpers.

“This is an important step, bordering on a great leap,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation in Washington, referring to Saturday's launch attempt during a prelaunch briefing this week. As a NASA astronaut, Mr. Lopez-Alegria flew on three space-shuttle missions and served as an expedition commander aboard the space station.

The mission is technically demanding – cramming into one orbital outing an agenda that the Gemini program in the 1960s took several missions to accomplish. Indeed, NASA and SpaceX agreed to combine the objectives of two demonstration flights into this one mission, based on the Falcon 9's past performance and an analysis of the company's readiness to attempt a twofer.

The challenge begins with the split-second timing required of the launch time. Launches to the space station are notorious for the small span of time – perhaps 10 minutes – a rocket has to lift off in order to rendezvous with the space station while burning as little fuel as possible during maneuvers required to catch up with the outpost.

On this mission, SpaceX has mere seconds to launch. Otherwise it must wait another three days for a second try.

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