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SpaceX's Dragon craft is a star performer, so far (+video)

The Dragon spacecraft passed the underside of the space station and correctly calculated the distance between the two – two tests it cleared with flying colors on Thursday. The craft, owned by SpaceX, is set to dock on Friday.

By Staff writer / May 24, 2012

This computer generated image provided by SpaceX shows their Dragon spacecraft with solar panels deployed.

SpaceX/AP

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With the relentless flash of a strobe light and some on-board number crunching, SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft cleared two more significant milestones Thursday in the company's effort to become the first commercial launch service to carry cargo to the International Space Station.

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The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft passed the underside of the International Space Station on Thursday.

Appearing like a gnat silhouetted against the brilliance of Earth's cloud tops, Dragon passed within 1.5 miles of the station's underside in a test of its ability to receive data from the space station on the station's position – determined by Global Positioning System satellites – and accurately determine the distance and relative positions between the two craft.

In addition, space-station flight engineer André Kuipers activated a strobe light on Dragon, showing that the station crewmembers could command the cargo craft from their enviable perch in the multiwindowed cupola on the station – in essence the station's control tower for overseeing the arrival and departure of spacecraft from station partners.

SpaceX already is under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA for 12 cargo missions through 2015. But the company has its sights set on more than rations and experiment samples. A successful cargo service also paves the way for sending humans into space.

The company currently is one of four firms in which NASA is investing almost $270 million to develop human-spaceflight capabilities in the second phase of its commercial-crew development project. NASA is relying on commercial providers to ferry crews and cargo to and from the space station so that the agency can focus its human-spaceflight efforts on exploring space beyond low-Earth orbit, the space station's domain.

SpaceX's entry into that competition is a human-rated version of the Falcon 9 rocket, which lofted Dragon, and the Dragon craft. SpaceX designed Dragon from the outset to ferry people as well as petri dishes.

Thursday's activities would have wrapped up this mission in a sequence of three demonstration flights NASA originally envisioned for SpaceX. Efforts to dock with the station would have been the third mission. But the company was able to show that the two missions could be combined.

The intense preparations appear to have paid off so far. NASA and SpaceX have worked together on this mission for five years and began joint simulations nearly three years ago, notes John Couluris, SpaceX's mission director for this flight. The pace picked up during the past 18 months, with NASA and SpaceX conducting nearly 20 joint simulations and the company conducting more than 40 internally.

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