WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is scheduled to launch its Dragon space capsule toward the international space station Feb. 7 in a flight demonstration that would clear the way for the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company to begin regular cargo runs to the orbital outpost.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver announced the target launch date Dec. 9 during a speech at the NASA Future Forum in Seattle.

SpaceX, which has received $376 million from NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration program since 2006, originally planned to conduct two Dragon demo flights before sending the vehicle to berth with the space station for the first time. But after Dragon’s Falcon 9 launcher made a successful debut in June 2010, SpaceX began pushing to combine its final two COTS flights into a single mission.

In a press release issued immediately after Garver’s announcement, NASA said it has conditionally approved SpaceX’s request to berth with the station during the upcoming mission.

“Pending completion of the final safety reviews, testing and verification, NASA also has agreed to allow SpaceX to send its Dragon spacecraft with the International Space Station (ISS) in a single flight,” NASA said in the release.

Before Dragon is cleared to berth with the station, NASA said, Dragon will have to prove itself through a series of tests that will include a fly-by of the station at a distance of 3.2 kilometers and a demonstration of the craft’s ability to abort a rendezvous already in progress. If Dragon passes these tests, it will perform a final approach to the ISS while the astronauts on board grapple the craft with the station’s robotic arm and attach it to the Earth-facing side of the Harmony node. “If the rendezvous and attachment to the station are not successful, SpaceX will complete a third demonstration flight in order to achieve these objectives as originally planned,” NASA said in the release.

Once SpaceX proves that Dragon can safely rendezvous and berth with the station, the company will be cleared to begin making regular cargo resupply flights to the ISS under a $1.6 billion NASA contract it was awarded in 2008.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.