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SpaceX, NASA Forge New Course in Space Exploration

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., early Tuesday. Photo Credit/NASA photo

SpaceX forged a new course in space operations Tuesday, as the company’s Falcon 9 rocket and cargo carrying Dragon capsule raced into Earth orbit on the first U. S. commecial re-supply mission to the International Space Staton.

The nine-day mission, flying under the banner of NASA’s six-year-old Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, will feature an attempt to berth Dragon with the space station on Friday.

 The Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., at 3:44 a.m., EDT.  The successful climb to orbit reversed a setback Saturday, when the Falcon 9′s flight control computer aborted the flight a half-second from lift off.

 U S. policy makers are hopeful SpaceX and a second NASA COTS partner, Orbital Sciences Corp., and others in an emerging commercial spaceflight industry can take over where NASA’s shuttle program left off as it was retired in mid-2011.

 If the plan goes well, SpaceX and Orbital could be regularly delivering vital supplies to the space station by the end of this year. Within five years, at least two U. S. commercial space transportation services could be launching and returning astronauts from the space station — a responsibility left to Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft once shuttle operations ceased.

 That would permit NASA to turn its focus to human deep space exploration. Two years ago, President Obama directed NASA to prepare for a human mission to an asteroid by 2025 as a stepping stone to the exploration of Mars in the mid-2030s.

“This demonstrates the future of the American space program, using private industry to provide access to low Earth orbit, while NASA takes the risks of doing what private industry cannot,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, moments after witnessing the lift off from the Kennedy Space Center.  “That is sending humans to an asteroid, to Mars and other places in the solar system.”

The White House seemed pleased as well.

 ”Every launch into space is a thrilling event, but this one is especially exciting because it represents the potential of a new era in American spaceflight. Partnering with U.S. companies such as SpaceX to provide cargo and eventually crew service to the International Space Station is a cornerstone of the president’s plan for maintaining America’s leadership in space,” said John Holdren, the White House science policy advisor.

 ”This expanded role for the private sector will free up more of NASA’s resources to do what NASA does best — tackle the most demanding technological challenges in space, including those of human space flight beyond low Earth orbit,”  said Holdren in a statement. “I could not be more proud of our NASA and SpaceX scientists and engineers, and I look forward to following this and many more missions like it.”

 It would be difficult, however, to match the enthusiasm of Elon Musk, an Internet entrepreneur who started SpaceX a decade ago with the intent of one day launching humans into space.

 “We really are at the dawn of a new era of space exploration,” proclaimed Musk, who monitored the launch from his company’s Los Angeles area headquarters.

 The test  flight marks the third launch of the Falcon 9, the second for the unpiloted Dragon.

Dragon will speed after the space station over the next two days as its California-based flight control team checks out the freighter’s navigation and communications systems. If they perform well, Dragon will maneuver to a point 1.5 miles below the station early Thursday.

The space station's Canadarm2, pictured on the left, and the Cupola observation deck, alongside, are an essential part of plans to grapple and berth the SpaceX Dragon re-supply craft this week. Photo Credit/NASA

Astronauts on the station will check out their abiility to communicate with Dragon, demonstrating they could prompt the capsule to hold or even back away if the rendezvous activities became unsafe.

 If Thursday’s check out goes well, Dragon will retreat temporarily to a point above and behind the space station until Friday. Then Dragon will initiate a second rendezvous, this time moving within reach of the station’s Canadarm2, a 58-foot-long robot arm.

 If the conditions are safe, station astroanuts Don Pettit, of NASA, and Andre Kuipers, of the European Space Agency, will gather at a control console in the Cupola observation deck of the orbiting science lab.

Space station astronauts Don Pettit, left, and Andre Kuipers train to capture Dragon with Canadarm2 using a training simulator. Photo Credit/NASA Photo

There, they will command the arm to grapple Dragon and berth it to the station’s Harmony module. The spacecraft will remain docked until May 31.

Once released, Dragon will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, making a parachute descent into the Pacific Ocean off the California coast. SpaceX ships will recover the reusable capsule.

 Orbital Science Corp. plans a similar spaceflight later this year.

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