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SpaceX aims for April 30 launch of milestone space station mission


An artist's conception shows SpaceX's Dragon capsule at the International Space Station for a delivery.

SpaceX's president says the California-based rocket company is preparing to launch the first commercial cargo ship to the International Space Station as early as April 30 — but whether that date holds will depend on what happens between now and then.

The new "no earlier than" date came out on Tuesday during the Satellite 2012 conference in Washington. "I’m happy to say we have a launch date scheduled on the range and a berthing date with the ISS," New Space Journal quoted SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell as saying during a panel. "The launch date is April 30, and we hope to berth on May 3."

That date is just barely in line with SpaceX's previous statements that the company was preparing for a late-April launch of its Falcon 9 rocket, topped by its Dragon cargo capsule. Representatives of SpaceX as well as NASA emphasized that the official date has not yet been set.

"The launch date will be set officially at the Flight Readiness Review on April 12," NASA spokesman Michael Braukus told me in an email. "April 30 is the date SpaceX is working toward."

SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Brost Grantham echoed that assessment. "SpaceX is currently targeting April 30 for our upcoming demonstration mission," she said in an email. "However, NASA will not grant final approval for a targeted launch date until completion of the Flight Readiness Review."

The launch date has been postponed in the past, due to technical issues that have cropped up during the preparations. Even after an official date is set, further postponements may well be in store. Shotwell was quoted as saying that "we may have to have a couple of attempts, but we’re certainly looking forward to getting that flight off."

In a follow-up email, Grantham explained why the launch schedule is subject to change: "The upcoming mission is exciting because of the potential to make history.  But it is a test flight.  This is a challenging mission, and we intend to take every necessary precaution in order to improve the likelihood of success."

The flight plan calls for the robotically controlled Dragon to approach the station and conduct a series of test maneuvers. If everything checks out, astronauts would then use the station's robotic arm to grab the Dragon and bring it in for its berthing. After unloading supplies, the station's crew would unberth the Dragon and send it back down for splashdown and recovery.

SpaceX and another company, Orbital Sciences, have been receiving more than $600 million from NASA for the development of cargo craft capable of filling in for the now-retired space shuttle fleet. If the two companies are successful, they'll be eligible for $3.5 billion in NASA contracts for space station resupply.

SpaceX's Dragon successfully completed its first orbital test in December 2010, but it hasn't flown since. Orbital's Antares launch vehicle and Cygnus cargo craft have not yet gone into space, but their first test flight is scheduled for later this year.

The upcoming SpaceX launch would mark a milestone, due to its status as the first fully commercial flight to the space station. NASA is counting on commercial providers to send U.S. supplies into orbit, and eventually U.S. astronauts as well. Until those commercial craft are in operation, NASA has to depend on other countries for cargo supply, and exclusively on the Russians for crew transport. The per-seat cost for those crew flights is heading upwards of $60 million per seat. SpaceX and other would-be crew carriers, including the Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin, say they can match that price.

Those four companies have been receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from NASA for spaceship development, and the Obama administration's budget proposal calls for spending another $830 million on the commercial crew program in fiscal year 2013. That level of support would get the commercial crew transports flying by 2017, NASA says.

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Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.