The launch of the first privately built spaceship to the International Space Station is targeted for late March, but will most likely lift off in early April, a top NASA space station official said Thursday.
The unmanned Dragon space capsule, built by California-based SpaceX, was originally scheduled to launch on a demonstration flight to the orbiting complex on Feb. 7, but the company announced last month that more time is needed to prepare the vehicle for flight.
The capsule is due to launch no earlier than March 20, but a more precise date will be announced in the coming weeks, SpaceX and NASA officials say.
"There are no big problems being worked, but there's a lot of little things they're trying to wrap up," NASA's station program manager, Mike Suffredini, told reporters during a Thursday niews briefing. "It's a challenging date, so I wouldn’t hold my breath that that's going to be the date we'll actually launch. We'll fly within a couple weeks of that date, probably."
The discussion of SpaceX's launch schedule came alongside news that the launch of three new crew members to the space station will be postponed until May, due to issues with the Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft.
With testing and modifications currently under way, SpaceX and NASA should be able to set a new launch date within a couple of weeks, Suffredini said.
"We've agreed that in a couple weeks we’ll try to pick the new launch date," he added. "Then we'll have software regression testing done, we'll have a good handle on what work we have remaining. We'll set a date at that point if we can't meet March 20." [Photos: Dragon, SpaceX's Private Spaceship]
The Dragon capsule is slated to launch atop SpaceX's own Falcon 9 rocket and, if successful, will be the first private spaceship ever to rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station. The flight, which will mark a critical step for the private spaceflight industry, is designed to test the robotic vehicle's ability to carry cargo to the station.
As part of the requirements, the spacecraft will approach the complex, providing an opportunity for the space station's crew to latch onto the vehicle using the station's robotic arm. It will then be attached to the Earth-facing side of the station's Harmony node, in a process similar to how robotic Japanese cargo ships are manually docked to the outpost.
The upcoming Dragon flight is the second for SpaceX under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS. While this mission will test the capsule's ability to rendezvous and dock to the space station, SpaceX also plans to use a version of the vehicle eventually to carry astronauts and other paying customers to low-Earth orbit.
Space news from NBCNews.com
Teen's space mission fueled by social media
Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.
- Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
- Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
- Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online
- Teen's space mission fueled by social media
SpaceX launched its first test Dragon into orbit in December 2010. The spacecraft orbited Earth twice before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. The successful test flight marked the first time a commercial company launched a spacecraft into orbit and returned it safely.
With the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet in 2011, several commercial companies are vying to fill the cargo-carrying void left by the agency's mothballed reusable orbiters. NASA's COTS program aims to foster the development of a new fleet of private spaceships to deliver food, supplies and hardware to the space station.
As part of its partnership with NASA, SpaceX will receive up to $396 million for the successful completion of the milestones outlined in their Space Act Agreement.
Orbital Sciences Corp is another private company developing a cargo freighter under NASA's COTS program. The company, based in Dulles, Va., is building its Cygnus spacecraft to carry supplies to the space station. Orbital will receive up to $288 million for the successful completion of their planned milestones, with the first Cygnus test flight expected in 2012.
- How SpaceX's Dragon Space Capsule Works (Infographic)
- SpaceX: Fully Reusable Rockets in the Works
- The Falcon and Dragons of SpaceX
© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.