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Private supply ship aces pivotal space station test

Makes close flyby in advance of today’s docking

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The world’s first private supply ship flew tantalizingly close to the International Space Station Thursday, acing a critical test in advance of the actual docking.

The unmanned SpaceX Dragon capsule flew within 1½ miles of the orbiting lab as it performed a practice lap and checkout of its communication and navigation systems.

Officials at NASA and the SpaceX company declared the rendezvous a success and said the historic linkup is on track for Friday.

It is the first US vessel to visit the space station since NASA’s shuttles retired last summer, and the first private spacecraft ever to attempt a delivery. The Dragon is carrying 1,000 pounds of provisions.

SpaceX officials were happy with Thursday’s feat.

“It is a big confidence boost,’’ mission director John Couluris said. “Everyone’s very excited.’’

After working all night and into the wee hours, he urged his team to go home and rest up for Friday.

“It’s exciting to be an American and part of putting American spacecraft into orbit,’’ he said, “and we’re very proud right now.’’

NASA flight director Holly Ridings that said the mood is upbeat on her side as well, but that Friday’s delivery will still be a challenge.

“There’s still a lot of really new things that the teams need to perform and the vehicles, frankly, need to perform,’’ she said. “This is still definitely a demonstration flight.’’

As the predawn hours of Thursday unfolded, the space station astronauts struggled with bad computer monitors and camera trouble as the Dragon zoomed toward them, but the problem did not hold up the operation. Indeed, all of the tests appeared to go well.

The astronauts successfully turned on Dragon’s strobe light by remote control but could not see it because of the sun glare and distance of several miles. The Dragon finally popped into camera view about 10 minutes later, appearing as a bright speck of light against the blackness of space, near the Earth’s blue horizon. The two solar wings were clearly visible as the Dragon drew closer.

“Can nicely see the vehicle,’’ Dutch spaceman Andre Kuipers said.

SpaceX’s near-term objective is to help stockpile the space station, joining Russia, Europe, and Japan in resupply duties. In three or four more years, however, the company run by the billionaire who cofounded PayPal, Elon Musk, hopes to be launching station astronauts.

It is the cornerstone of President Obama’s strategy for NASA: turning over orbital flights to private business so the space agency can concentrate on destinations farther afield, like asteroids and Mars. Several US companies are vying for the opportunity.

Obama called Musk Wednesday, a day after Dragon’s flawless launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., aboard the company’s Falcon 9 rocket.

“The President just called to say congrats,’’ Musk said via Twitter early Thursday. “Caller ID was blocked, so at first I thought it was a telemarketer. He ended his tweet with a smiley emoticon.

Musk monitored Thursday’s operation from the SpaceX Mission Control in Hawthorne, Calif.

On Friday morning, two of the space station’s six astronauts, Kuipers and Donald Pettit, will use the space station’s robot arm to grab the Dragon and attach it to the complex. The crew will have just under a week to unload the contents before releasing the spacecraft for reentry next Thursday.

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