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SpaceX engineers work on the Dragon spacecraft. Credit: SpaceX

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), a private company based in Hawthorne, CA, announced last week that its rocket, Falcon 9, is ready for its first test flight.

Aboard the rocket will be the company’s Dragon capsule, a spacecraft designed to carry both cargo and crew, which is being developed under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Earlier this year, SpaceX won a $1.6 billion contract to provide the agency with a vehicle capable of reaching the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX has not set a launch date, but the rocket will be sent to the launch pad in Cape Canaveral, FL, in November. It could be anywhere from one to three months before it lifts off.

The test flight will gather valuable aerodynamic and performance data on both the rocket and the Dragon spacecraft.

Falcon 9 is part of a family of launch vehicles SpaceX is developing that could help fill a gap in U.S. space transportation. The space shuttles are expected to retire in 2010 and NASA’s next launch vehicle, Ares, is not scheduled to be ready for flight until 2015. The commercial vehicles could also help reduce spaceflight costs for the U.S. government.

SpaceX initially began developing its rockets for space tourism and for launching scientific and commercial satellites into orbit. While it has successfully flown a previous rocket, Falcon 1, the maiden flight of Falcon 9 has been hit with delays (this is not unusual for a rocket designed from scratch).

The company’s contract with NASA is for 12 flights of cargo to the space station starting at the end of 2010. Prior to that, SpaceX has to conduct three demonstration missions. This first flight is not one of the NASA demo missions.

SpaceX will deliver the cargo using its Dragon spacecraft, which the company says could be easily modified to carry crew, an option that is in the company’s COTS contract, but something that NASA has not yet opted for.

While a handful of other commercial companies, including Orbital Sciences, which has received a COTS contract to carry cargo to ISS, are trying to develop launch capabilities, SpaceX is ahead of its competitors.

Falcon 9 on the launch pad at Space Launch Complex in Florida. Credit: SpaceX

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Tagged: Computing, NASA, SpaceX, rocket, launch vehicles, Falcon 9, COTS

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