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SpaceX rocket blasts off to restock space station

$1.6b contract with NASA calls for 12 more trips

California-based SpaceX launched its unmanned Falcon 9 rocket, laden with equipment, from Cape Canaveral Sunday.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

California-based SpaceX launched its unmanned Falcon 9 rocket, laden with equipment, from Cape Canaveral Sunday.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A privately owned rocket blasted off Sunday night on the first of a dozen space station supply missions under a mega-contract with NASA.

The California-based SpaceX launched its unmanned Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral. Aboard the rocket was SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, holding 1,000 pounds of cargo, including chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream for the three station residents.

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This is the first Dragon launch under a $1.6 billion contract between SpaceX and NASA. The contract calls for 12 resupply missions.

A Dragon flew to the international space station in May, but it was a test, so nothing vital was aboard. The newest Dragon is hauling key experiments and other precious gear.

Dragon is due to reach the orbiting lab Wednesday.

It will remain docked for nearly three weeks before returning to earth with an even bigger load.

SpaceX raised the Falcon rocket at its launch pad Sunday afternoon in preparation for the liftoff.

NASA had been monitoring a piece of space junk that was moving close to the space station, but officials announced Sunday that the orbiting lab was no longer at risk. That will allow engineers to focus entirely on the delivery mission.

The space agency is counting on private business to restock the space station because its shuttles have retired to museums.

The Dragon is carrying food, clothes, experiments, and equipment. Even more cargo will come back when the Dragon parachutes into the Pacific at the end of October.

The SpaceX Dragons parachute into the Pacific, reminiscent of NASA’s old-time capsules. This one is expected to land about 250 miles off the coast of Southern California.

SpaceX — or Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — is run by billionaire Elon Musk, a cofounder of PayPal who also directs the electric car maker Tesla Motors.

His space company is working to turn the unmanned Dragon vessels into craft that could carry Americans to the space station in the coming years.

Until SpaceX or another US company can do that, NASA astronauts will have to keep riding on Russian rockets at a steep cost.

SpaceX estimates it will be ready to launch crews aboard Dragons in three years.

During the current mission, space station astronauts will fill the capsule with blood and urine samples, other experiments, and old equipment, for its return to earth at the end of the month. By then, the station will be back to a full crew of six.

The nearly 500 tubes of blood and syringes of urine have been stashed in space station freezers since the last space shuttle flight, by Atlantis, in July 2011. The decommissioned Atlantis, and sister ships Discovery and Endeavour, are now museum relics.

NASA nutritionist Scott Smith said these blood and urine samples — part of medical studies — will be the first to be returned since Atlantis’s final voyage.

“While it may seem very strange to some folks, my typical line is that, ‘It may be urine to you, but it’s gold to us,’ ” Smith said. “There’s a lot of science that comes out of this.”

NASA’s space station program manager, Mike Suffredini, is also thrilled about having an American spacecraft bearing goods. It is much easier to get last-minute equipment aboard a US capsule, he noted. The Dragon, for example, will carry up a new pump for the space station’s urine-into-drinking water recycling system.

“Shipping and customs can kill you when you’re trying to get overseas,” Suffredini said.

Within a few weeks, NASA expects to name the US astronaut and Russian cosmonaut who will spend an entire year aboard the space station, beginning in spring 2015, twice the usual length for a mission. Suffredini said the list of potential candidates is “very short.”

Another NASA official said only previous space station crew members are under consideration for the two slots because they are already trained in the systems of the orbiting complex.

On Friday, the space agency said it would commit to a yearlong mission to learn what it will take for humans to journey beyond low-earth orbit — Mars, for example.

Russia already knows. Three cosmonauts spent at least a year aboard the old Mir space station; the record for a single stint is almost 15 months. No American has spent more than seven months in space at a time.

NASA decided in 2006 to turn to the commercial sector for supply flights, selecting SpaceX, a Hawthorne, Calif., company.

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