Image: SpaceX Falcon 8 rocket
SpaceX
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the first Dragon spacecraft bound for the International Space Station is seen resting atop SpaceX’s launch site in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
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updated 5/18/2012 12:41:19 PM ET 2012-05-18T16:41:19

A private spacecraft stands ready to launch on a historic first visit to the International Space Station Saturday.

The unmanned Dragon space capsule, built by commercial firm SpaceX, is slated to lift off atop the company's Falcon 9 rocket early Saturday from here at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The spacecraft has an instantaneous launch window at 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 GMT), with a 70 percent chance of good weather predicted (the main risk of a delay is posed by the possibility of cumulus clouds).

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If all goes well, Dragon will fly by the space station on Monday and rendezvous and berth at the outpost the day after, becoming the first non-governmental vehicle to do so. The mission is the final test flight planned for Dragon, which has been developed under NASA's COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program aimed at nurturing private spacecraft to supply the International Space Station.

The mission is a critical test for NASA's plan to outsource transportation to low-Earth orbit to the commercial sector, allowing the agency to begin work on a new heavy-lift rocket for deep space. Some in Congress and elsewhere have been critical of the scheme, arguing that private vehicles are untested and less reliable than NASA's in-house built spacecraft. [ Photos: SpaceX Poised for Historic Launch ]

If Saturday's launch is successful, it could help sway the naysayers, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said.

"I think it will make a tremendous difference," Bolden told SPACE.com in April. "Everybody wants to see performance. You can promise things all you want, but nothing works like actual performance, and so it's a very important mission for SpaceX but an incredibly important mission for us at NASA."

SpaceX (officially Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif.) has designed Dragon to fly robotically at first, though the company has designs to man-rate the capsule. Eventually, Dragon is planned to be able to carry up to seven crewmembers to orbit, and could be used to transport astronauts as well as cargo to the space station.

SpaceX Dragon spacecraft
Reuters
SpaceX Dragon spacecraft

For this test flight, Dragon is loaded with 1,014 pounds of cargo for the orbiting laboratory, including 674 pounds of food, clothing and supplies for the station's six-man crew. It will also deliver scientific equipment and electronic hardware, including a laptop.

If the capsule's on-orbit checkouts go smoothly, then on Tuesday, NASA astronaut Don Pettit and European Space Agency flyer Andre Kuipers use the space station's 57.7-foot robotic arm to reach out and grab Dragon and berth it to the station's Harmony node.

The vehicle is scheduled to stay at the outpost for about two weeks. Then, it will be unberthed and will head back to Earth where it is planned to re-enter the atmosphere and land in the Pacific Ocean.

In contrast to the other unmanned vehicles that ferry cargo to the space station, Dragon is equipped with a heat shield to survive re-entry and be recovered after landing. Thus, before it departs the station, astronauts plan to load it full of science experiments ready for analysis on the ground, as well as used hardware to be returned to NASA.  

You can follow SPACE.com assistant managing editor Clara Moskowitz onTwitter @ClaraMoskowitz.Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcomand on Facebook.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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