This week Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, will make history with the launch of the Dragon cargo capsule aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. It will be the first attempt by a commercial company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station, a feat previously performed by only a handful of government agencies.
The launch, scheduled for Saturday, May 19, from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, is ambitious endeavor, and SpaceX warns that "success is not guaranteed." In a more can-do vein, the company also said that "if any aspect of the mission is not successful, SpaceX will learn from the experience and try again."
The unmanned mission, expected to last about 21 days, will be the first privately built and funded spacecraft rendezvous with the space station. If successful, the mission is expected to pave the way toward regular operational commercial cargo missions to space, opening a new chapter in space exploration.
Editors' note:This slideshow was originally published May 1 at 8:57 a.m. PT. It has been expanded with additional photos and updated information.
The International Space Station, seen here, awaits the arrival of the unmanned SpaceX Dragon capsule carrying resupply cargo. If all goes according to plan, the Dragon capsule will make many return trips -- manned and unmanned -- to the ISS over the next decade.
The National Center for Earth and Space Science Education commissioned 22 mission patch designs to fly in the the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) payload to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX's Dragon capsule.
Lily Heese, a 4th grade student at Watkins Elementary in Washington, D.C., designed this patch, which will represent the Capitol Hill Cluster Schools.
At SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral, technicians load cargo into the SpaceX Dragon capsule for its scheduled liftoff aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. The reusable Dragon capsule will carry nearly 1,200 pounds of cargo in pressurized and unpressurized payloads.
NASA awarded a $1.6 billion commercial resupply services (CRS) contract to SpaceX in December 2008, with options that potentially increase the maximum contract value to $3.1 billion. The contract calls for 12 flights to the ISS, carrying a minimum of 20,000 kilograms (44,000 pounds) of cargo.
SpaceX engineers prepare for the launch test last month at SpaceX’s control center in Cape Canaveral. The mock launch exercise had the rocket's nine engines all firing at full power for two seconds, as various sensors within the complex monitored the activity and ensured everything was up to standard for launch.
In addition to the successful static fire test, SpaceX already has two successful Falcon 9 launches to its credit, along with a history-making demonstration of the Dragon capsule that in December 2010 became the first privately built and operated spacecraft to be launched to and recovered from Earth orbit. That launch is shown here.
At a hands on demo day, SpaceX and NASA conducted a daylong review of the Dragon crew vehicle layout this spring using the Dragon engineering model equipped with seats and representations of crew systems. Industry leaders and former astronauts were invited to peruse the private spacecraft.