WASHINGTON — Buoyed by the successful maiden launch and recovery of its unmanned Dragon cargo capsule Dec. 8, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is pressing its case for sending Dragon to the international space station on its next flight.

Under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement SpaceX signed with NASA in 2006, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company pledged to conduct two increasingly complex Dragon flights before sending the spacecraft to berth with the station for the first time in a third and final demonstration mission.

In the first of those demos, the Dragon launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and made two Earth orbits before being maneuvered back into the atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. The mission, lasting 3 hours and 20 minutes, went better than Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, had imagined.

“Just looking at all the mission data — it’s almost too good,” Musk said in a news briefing after Dragon had been fished out of the ocean. “For a rocket to work, and a spacecraft to work — they’re both incredibly complex devices. So much can go wrong, but it all went right. I’m sort of in semi-shock.”

Musk said he would be continuing talks with NASA about combining elements of the second and third COTS flights into a single station-bound demo that, if successful, would set the stage for Dragon to make its first full-fledged cargo delivery next November. SpaceX holds a $1.6 billion contract to make 12 logistics flights to the space station pending successful completion of the COTS demonstrations.

“We have to carefully examine the data from this mission, but I’m optimistic that the next flight will be to the space station,” Musk said.

Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA’s COTS program manager, praised Dragon’s debut as a “100 percent” success but was somewhat guarded about the likelihood that NASA will sign off on SpaceX’s proposal to combine COTS flights two and three. “We’ll certainly give it a good look,” he said.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who was in Washington during the launch, told Space News the decision is not his to make.

“There are a number of criteria that they have to meet in order for us to do that,” Bolden said. “I do know that they’ve asked, but that’s not my decision. I don’t tell people how to suck eggs. I let my managers do their jobs.”

Dragon’s launch had been scheduled for Dec. 7 but was delayed 24 hours to give engineers time to investigate two cracks found on the Falcon 9 rocket’s second-stage engine nozzle extension. SpaceX technicians worked through the night to trim the cracked section of the nozzle and tests performed the next day showed that the repairs had been successful.

At 10:43 a.m. local time, the Falcon 9 rocket finally lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 40 to make its first flight since its June debut. Shortly after 10:52 a.m., Dragon separated from the rocket’s second stage and began circling Earth. The autonomous spacecraft performed a preplanned set of maneuvers during two orbits before firing its re-entry rocket around 1:22 p.m. and making a parachute-assisted splashdown shortly after 2 p.m.

Although it was not a mission requirement, SpaceX was again unable to recover the Falcon 9’s first stage. “No one’s ever recovered a liquid first stage intact, so it’s a very difficult thing to do,” Musk said during the postmission press briefing. Still, Musk said SpaceX is making incremental progress toward its goal of eventually recovering and reflying the rocket’s nine-engine main stage.

“I’d be very disappointed if we haven’t recovered a first stage intact in, let’s say, two to three years,” he said.

As for sending Dragon to the station, Musk said the vehicle could be ready to go around the middle of next year. “There’s no meaningful difference in the complexity between the maneuvers we conducted today and what we would conduct in going to the space station,” he said.

But first, SpaceX would need to incorporate some extra features into the craft, including solar panels and improved redundancy of some of the onboard electronics, he said.

NASA officials expect SpaceX to begin delivering cargo to the space station under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract late next year.

Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., is developing its own space station logistics service under a COTS agreement with NASA and also holds a CRS contract. Orbital’s Taurus 2 rocket and Cygnus cargo capsule, both in development, are slated to debut in a COTS demo mission expected to occur in fall of 2011.


Space.com’s Denise Chow contributed from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...