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SpaceX scores first FAA license for re-entry

With the space shuttles set to retire, NASA is looking to private companies like SpaceX to transport cargo--and eventually crews--to and from the International Space Station.

The Dragon spacecraft from SpaceX.
The Dragon spacecraft from SpaceX.

SpaceX has won the first-ever license from the Federal Aviation Administration allowing a private-sector spacecraft to re-enter Earth's atmosphere.

The California company says that next month it plans to launch its unmanned Dragon spacecraft into Earth orbit, where it will be traveling at speeds of greater than 17,000 miles per hour. With the one-year FAA license in hand, SpaceX will also be able to bring the spacecraft back home a few hours later and have it splash down in the Pacific Ocean, where it will be recovered.

The event will mark the first commercial launch paired with an officially sanctioned re-entry. The company said in its announcement yesterday that it will also be "the first attempt by a commercial company to recover a spacecraft reentering from low-Earth orbit." It has only been performed by the U.S., Russia, China, Japan, India, and the European Space Agency, SpaceX said.

The unmanned SpaceX mission, set for December 7, is a precursor to coordinated NASA and SpaceX efforts to eventually provide commercial trips to the International Space Station with cargo and crew, according to the FAA. NASA's space shuttles, which have been performing that mission along with related flights by Russia spacecraft, are scheduled to go into retirement early next year.

"NASA wishes SpaceX every success with the launch," NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said in a statement.

The Dragon spacecraft will lift off atop SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. It will be the first flight under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, and SpaceX expects to make at least 12 flights to carry cargo to and from the ISS as part of a resupply services contract.