Space Exploration Technologies is vying to be the first private company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station, and its mission got off to a successful start with a launch this morning.
A Dragon spacecraft launched from the company's launch pad at Cape Canaveral at 3:44 a.m. Tuesday. It will soon begin a series of tests in space to determine if it can indeed dock with the space station.
Officials with the company, known as SpaceX, said the launch was a successful first step regardless of what happens later in the mission.
"We obviously have to go through a number of steps to berth with the Space Station, but everything is looking really good and I think I would count today as a success no matter what happens with the rest of the mission," SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk said in a press conference after the launch. "This mission heralds the dawn of a new era of space exploration, one in which there is a significant commercial space element."
If possible, the Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to dock with the space station on Friday. It would then provide the space station with supplies and load on return cargo before leaving for Earth on May 31. The spacecraft is not manned.
While SpaceX's mission is based out of its control center in Hawthorne, Calif., the Dragon spacecraft will also be supported from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. Mission managers at Goddard are monitoring the health and status of communications with the spacecraft and various points here on Earth, said Jim Bangerter, network director for human space flight.
"We have been working with SpaceX for three or four years to develop the communications procedures that they are going to need during their mission," Bangerter said. That is something NASA agreed to provide in exchange for SpaceX hauling half a ton of food, laptop computers, spacecraft parts and other cargo, he said.