On December 8th, 2010 SpaceX launched a Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. - Photo by AP

WASHINGTON: SpaceX will fly its Dragon capsule on an unmanned mission to the International Space Station in February, marking the first-ever bid by a private company to dock at the orbiting lab, Nasa said on Friday.

The fly-by and berthing mission are scheduled for February 7, 2012, the US space agency said in a statement.

“SpaceX has made incredible progress over the last several months preparing Dragon for its mission to the space station,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

“We look forward to a successful mission, which will open up a new era in commercial cargo delivery for this international orbiting laboratory.” SpaceX – owned by Elon Musk, Internet entrepreneur and founder of PayPal – in December last year became the first commercial outfit to send its Dragon spacecraft into orbit.

The effort is part of a running competition between private companies including Boeing and Sierra Nevada to be the first to create a spacecraft capable of replacing the US space shuttle which retired earlier this year.

The first manned mission by a private company is not expected until around 2015, and in the meantime the world's astronauts must pay Russia for rides to the ISS aboard its Soyuz spacecraft.

Gerstenmaier cautioned that “a significant amount of critical work” remains before launch and warned that the date may be adjusted “as needed to gain sufficient understanding of test and analysis results.”

However, Alan Lindenmoyer, Nasa's program manager of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, said SpaceX is “on the forefront of demonstrating how a partnership between the government and private industry can lead to new capabilities.”

The main goals of the February flight include a fly-by of the ISS at a distance of two miles, and a berthing operation in which Dragon will approach the ISS and the crew aboard the orbiting outpost will use the ISS robotic arm to help it latch on.

“The spacecraft will also demonstrate the capability to abort the rendezvous, if required,” the Nasa statement said.

After the test mission, the ISS crew will “reverse the process, detaching Dragon from the station for its return to Earth and splashdown in the Pacific off the coast of California.”

If the operation to rendezvous and berth at the station are not a success, SpaceX will attempt it again in a new test flight “in order to achieve these objectives as originally planned.”

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