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No one is rooting more for SpaceX than NASA. The space agency has poured $381 million into the SpaceX effort, while the company has spent $1 billion over its 10-year lifetime, said Musk, the high-tech pioneer who co-founded PayPal and Tesla Motors, the electric car company.

NASA also gave $266 million to a second company it hired to make supply runs. Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. hopes to launch its Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule from Wallops Island, Va., by year’s end.

“This is the start of a real new era,” said Dutch spaceman Andre Kuipers, who will help Pettit snare the Dragon and pull it to the space station with a robotic arm.

Pettit agreed the upcoming Dragon flight is a “big deal,” but added: “I hope this becomes so routine that people won’t even pay attention to it anymore.”

SpaceX will have only a split second, at 4:55 a.m. Saturday, to shoot its Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule skyward. (All spacecraft bound for the space station these days have instantaneous launch windows in order to sync up efficiently with the orbiting outpost.)

SpaceX already has achieved what no other commercial entity has done: It launched a spacecraft into orbit and brought it back intact in a 2010 test flight that ended with the capsule splashing down in the Pacific.

But getting to the space station is twice as hard, said Musk, who is not only CEO but chief designer. A Dragon capsule has never before attempted a rendezvous and docking in orbit _ an exquisitely delicate operation, with the risk of a collision that could prove ruinous for the space station, which has six men on board.

If something goes wrong, “we’ll fix the problem and be back at it,” Musk said. Two more SpaceX delivery trips are planned for this year.

The bell-shaped Dragon capsule is 19 feet tall and 12 feet across. What sets it apart from other capsules is that it can bring back space station experiments and old equipment, as the shuttles did. None of the Russian, European and Japanese supply ships do that _ they burn up when they return to Earth. The Russian Soyuz vehicles that ferry astronauts have little room to spare.

The Dragon will be cut loose from the space station about two weeks after arriving and aim for a Pacific splashdown off the California coast.

Other U.S. companies vying for a shot at launching space station astronauts _ like Sierra Nevada Corp., which is designing the mini-shuttle Dream Chaser _ are cheering on SpaceX since it is the first one out of NASA’s post-shuttle, commercial gate.

Former space shuttle commander Steven Lindsey, director of flight operations for Sierra Nevada in Colorado, said: “It’s a new way of doing business, and there’s a lot of debate back and forth on whether it’s going to be successful _ or whether it can be successful.”

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Online:

SpaceX: http://www.spacex.com

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