SpaceX will attempt the first commercial link-up with the International Space Station (ISS) on Feb. 7, which could be a major milestone on the way to the low-Earth-orbit economy NASA is trying to create.
NASA has authorized the company to attempt rendezvous and berthing with the station in a single flight, instead of two, as originally planned. A SpaceX Falcon 9 launching from Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla., will send a Dragon capsule toward a grapple-and-berth operation at the ISS to clear the way for future commercial cargo deliveries to the orbiting outpost, with commercial crew flights to follow.
Announcement of the launch date signifies resolution of an earlier stumbling block to the attempt. SpaceX had wanted to launch two Orbcomm low-Earth-orbit data-relay satellites as secondary payloads on the Falcon 9, raising concerns the secondaries might hit the station on a later orbit and damage it. The company cut back to one secondary payload, and agreed to deploy it below the station’s orbit.
Post-launch mission plans call for the Dragon to check out its sensors and other systems during a station flyby at a range of about 2 mi., and demonstrate its ability to abort if necessary. If all goes nominally, the commercial cargo craft—which SpaceX says was designed to meet human-rating requirements as well—will make its final approach and be grappled by the ISS crew with the station’s robotic arm for berthing at the nadir side of the Harmony node.