NASA oks SpaceX Dragon vehicle for April 30 ISS mission, with caveats

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The Space Exploration Technologies (better known as SpaceX) Dragon vehicle has been approved to make an April 30, 2012 launch to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA officials announced on Monday.

If the launch and docking prove to be successful, this will be the first time a commercial American robotic spacecraft has ever flown to the International Space Station.

SpaceX officials and NASA ISS space station managers met on Monday to review the Dragon spacecraft's readiness for its first trip to the orbiting international laboratory. They said the capsule is on track to blast off in two weeks, with a caveat: a few remaining issues need to be resolved during that timespan.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, made the following statement to reporters on Monday,

"Everything looks good as we head towards the April 30 launch date, but I would caution us all that there's still quite a bit of work that needs to be done. We'll continue to work through this stuff over the next week or so. On the 23rd of April, we'll get back together again and just kind of assess where we are overall to see how things are moving forward."

Among the requirements for a launch "go" will be continued software validation of the Dragon space vehicle.

Gerstenmaier admitted the SpaceX team has shown a lot of good focus, and that the two teams seem to present a united front.

"I was very impressed with the discussion between the NASA teams and the SpaceX teams. When I hear the discussion back and forth, it's really one team. They're really focused on 'how do we deliver cargo to [the] space station? How do we get ready for this next phase?' And these teams have worked just phenomenally well together."

SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to 12 robotic supply missions to the ISS. The April 30 mission is not one of the 12, however; instead it is a demonstration to show that Dragon and SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket are ready for the actual missions.

SpaceX aims to become the first company to launch a spacecraft toward the orbiting lab under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Now that NASA's space shuttle fleet has been retired, NASA wants to foster development of private space vehicles to take over.

After a fly-under of the ISS at a distance of about 2.5 km to ensure the craft's maneuvering systems and sensors are working. Once testing is completed, the ISS crew will use the station's robotic arm to maneuver the spacecraft for a rendezvous.

The Dragon spacecraft first made history in December of 2010 when it became the first commercial space capsule to ever launch into orbit, and successfully re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. There will be another assessment next week, one week before the mission, to determine if the Dragon is ready for launch.

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