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All systems go for 'historic' SpaceX launch this month

NASA and SpaceX, the private aerospace firm that is seeking a contract to replace the space shuttle, met Monday in anticipation of a crucial space-station test run April 30. 

By Staff writer / April 17, 2012

SpaceX launched a Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in December 2010. It's planning a more ambitious test mission for April 30: sending its capsule to the space station and recovering it.

Chris Thompson/SpaceX/File

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As a NASA 747 carried the venerable space shuttle Discovery to its retirement home at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum annex at Dulles Airport in Virginia on Tuesday, the space agency and its private-industry partner SpaceX were gearing up for a different milestone.

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On April 30, SpaceX will launch its Falcon 9 rocket on a demonstration mission to the International Space Station.

The Falcon 9 and its Dragon cargo capsule represent one of two offerings from commercial rocketmakers aimed at replacing the shuttles as space freighters. A second company, Orbital Sciences, is anticipating the maiden test flight of its Antares rocket from Wallops Island, Va., later this year.

The upcoming SpaceX mission represents a “historic launch,” notes Michael Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager.

The event is billed as a demonstration mission. Still, for the space-station program, a successful conclusion would mark the first time a commercial rocket company has delivered supplies to the station and the first time an unmanned vehicle returned cargo to Earth as well.

Three other unmanned resupply vehicles – Russia's Progress vehicles, Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle, and Japan's H-II Transfer Vehicle – already have made resupply runs to the orbiting outpost. But unlike the Dragon craft, the other carriers also serve as space-station trash incinerators, carrying refuse to burn up on reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

“We've got a pretty good shot” at a successful mission, said SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk, during a briefing on Monday following a design-review meeting NASA held with company representatives.

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