A turning point for private spaceflight looks to be on the horizon.
The commercial rocket builder SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, Calif.) is preparing to launch the first privately built vehicle to the International Space Station this week. If it succeeds, it will be a milestone event in the history of space exploration. However, the firm and NASA warn against placing too much importance on one test flight.
SpaceX's Dragon capsule is due to lift off unmanned atop the company's Falcon 9 booster May 19 from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. If all goes well, it will rendezvous with the government-built space lab in orbit, and be berthed there to deliver a haul of food, supplies and science equipment.
The flight is part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program, and if successful, would represent a major validation for the endeavor. The program is aimed at spurring the development of private spacecraft to replace the cargo-carrying capacity of the retired space shuttles.