Private Space Capsule Set for November Test Flight
The Dragon spacecraft is mounted on a fixture in the hangar at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
Credit: Brian Attiyeh/SpaceX

A private unmanned spacecraft designed to ferry supplies to the International Space Station is slated to launch on its first demonstration flight, tentatively scheduled for early November.

The Dragon space capsule is built by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), the Hawthorne, Calif.-based private spaceflight company.

The flight, a test of the company's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule, is being developed under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, aimed at advancing space transportation capabilities among U.S. commercial firms.

Flying dragon

The flight is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and should follow a flight plan that is nearly identical to SpaceX's inaugural Falcon 9 test launch in June. [Photos: SpaceX's First Falcon 9 Launch]

The first COTS demo requires SpaceX to show that Dragon can complete as many as four orbits around Earth, transmit telemetry data, receive commands, maneuver, reenter the atmosphere and make a safe water landing and recovery.

"For this first demo flight, Dragon will make multiple orbits of the Earth as we test all of its systems, and will then fire its thrusters to begin reentry, returning to Earth for a Pacific Ocean splashdown off the coast of Southern California," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wrote in an online update. "The entire mission should last around four hours."

The demonstration flight was previously postponed from a planned Oct. 23 launch.

Once SpaceX displays the ability to control Dragon's reentry during a water landing, the company plans to add deployable landing gear to the craft and use thrusters to bring Dragon down on land.

First test flight

SpaceX launched its first Falcon 9 rocket in June from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in a successful test flight of the two-stage booster. Falcon 9 reached Earth orbit, about 155 miles (250 km) up.

The spacecraft will initially be used to transport cargo to the International Space Station, under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA, with flights slated to begin in 2011.

The gumdrop-shaped space capsule is designed to haul up to 13,228 pounds (6,000 kg) of cargo to low-Earth orbit and return about 6,614 pounds (3,000 kg) to Earth.

The ship will fly near the International Space Station and be grappled and attached to the outpost using the station's robotic arm.

Plans for a crew-carrying Dragon spacecraft are also under development; that version of the vehicle could carry up to seven astronauts.

NASA plans to rely on American-built commercial spacecraft, when they become available, to ferry supplies and astronauts into low-Earth orbit after its space shuttle fleet retires next year.