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SpaceX tucked fresh fruit into the Dragon for the station residents; the apples and other treats are straight from the orchard of an employee’s family. Also on board: 640 seeds of a flowering weed used for research, mouse stems cells, protein crystals, astronaut meals and clothing, trash bags, air-purifying devices, computer parts and other gear.

NASA’s deputy administrator, Lori Garver, said using commercial providers is more efficient for the space agency. It’s part of a long-term program, she noted, that has NASA spending less money on low-Earth orbit and investing more in deep-space missions. That’s one reason why the space shuttles were retired in 2011 after the station was completed.

The goal is to have SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies Corp., and other private firms take over the job of ferrying astronauts to and from the space station in the next few years.

SpaceX _ so far the leader of the pack _ is aiming for a manned Dragon flight by 2015.

Competitor Orbital Sciences Corp. has yet to get off its Virginia launch pad. The company plans to launch a free-flying test of its Antares rocket and Cygnus supply ship in April, followed by a demo run to the space station in early summer. Then the so-called operational supply runs can begin.

Russia, Japan and Europe regularly make station deliveries as well, and Russia is the only option for astronaut rides. But only the Dragon is designed to bring back substantial amounts of research and used merchandise.

This Dragon is scheduled to spend more than three weeks at the space station before being cut loose by the crew on March 25. It will parachute into the Pacific with more than a ton of medical samples, plant and cell specimens, Japanese fish and old machinery, and used spacewalking gloves and other items.

SpaceX plans to launch its next Dragon to the station in late fall.

More than 2,000 guests jammed the Cape Canaveral launch site Friday morning to watch the Falcon take flight. It wasn’t much of a show because of all the clouds.