The first of two companies hired by NASA to fly cargo to the International Space Station is preparing for a test flight on Saturday, a harbinger of a new type of public-private partnership.
"It is, by all accounts, an important step, bordering on a giant leap, for commercial space," said Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former astronaut who now heads the Commercial Spaceflight Federation trade organization.
"We are at a brink of a milestone moment in our space history," added NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver.
The upcoming mission by Space Exploration Technologies, a 10-year-old firm owned and operated by internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, is billed as a practice run to the space station, a $100 billion research laboratory owned by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada that circles about 240 miles above the planet.
Liftoff is set for 4:55 a.m. EDT Saturday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Since the space shuttles were retired last summer, NASA is dependent on its partner countries to fly cargo and crew to the outpost while it focuses on developing new spacecraft that can travel beyond the station's orbit.