* Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule may also be used as
* Mission would be first by private company to space station
* NASA contributed $381 million to effort
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., April 16 NASA on Monday
cleared a cargo ship owned by Space Exploration Technologies for
a test flight to the International Space Station that is
scheduled to launch on April 30, NASA officials said.
The Dragon mission would be the first time a privately owned
and operated vessel visits the space station, a $100 billion
research laboratory owned by the United States, Russia, Europe,
Japan and Canada that orbits about 240 miles (384 km) above
NASA is counting on Space Exploration Technologies, also
known as SpaceX, and a second company, Orbital Sciences Corp.
, to keep the space station stocked with supplies and
science experiments following the retirement of the space
shuttles last year. The companies' combined contracts for cargo
deliveries are worth $3.8 billion.
"In order for space station to be successful, these systems
have to be there for us," space station program manager Mike
Suffredini said at news conference following a NASA review of
the upcoming SpaceX mission.
"We're really rooting for the teams to come through," added
NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier.
So far, NASA has invested $381 million in the SpaceX rocket
and cargo capsule, with the company and investors contributing
about another $700 million, SpaceX founder and Chief Executive
Elon Musk said.
The Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule also are in the
running to serve as a space taxi for astronauts. The United
States hopes to break Russia's monopoly on flying crews to the
station, a service that cost more than $60 million per person,
by 2016 under a related NASA program.
"This is a test flight and we may not succeed on getting
all the way to the space station," Musk said. "I think we've got
a pretty good shot, but it's important to acknowledge that a lot
can go wrong. This is pretty tricky."
If the launch is successful, the Dragon capsule would
conduct a series of maneuvers and tests in orbit before NASA
clears it for approach and berthing at the station, which is
targeted for May 3. It would remain attached to the outpost for
several weeks before flying back to Earth and splashing down in
the Pacific Ocean for recovery.
The capsule will carry 1,149 pounds (521 kg) of food and
non-critical equipment and supplies to the station. It is
expected to return 1,455 pounds (660 kg) of cargo back to Earth,
a capability that far exceeds what the Russian Soyuz capsules
The European and Japanese ships that also fly cargo to the
station incinerate in the atmosphere after making deliveries and
do not return to Earth.
NASA plans a final review of the Dragon mission on April 23
to verify SpaceX flight software. The Falcon 9 rocket is
scheduled for launch at 12:22 p.m. EDT (1622 GMT) on April 30,
with a backup launch opportunity on May 3.