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Why historic SpaceX mission to space station will be so difficult

When SpaceX launches its Falcon 9 rocket Saturday, it will be the beginning of a complex rendezvous with the space station that attempts to test several capabilities in one mission. 

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The SpaceX Falcon 9 test rocket is being prepared for launch from Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida Friday.

Pierre DuCharme/REUTERS

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A slender white rocket with a Dragon on top is poised to make spaceflight history. 

If all goes well, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon cargo capsule will lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 4:55 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Saturday en route to the International Space Station.

For Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), Saturday's launch begins a crucial set of technical tests for a rocket and spacecraft designed for regular cargo service to International Space Station. That task is itself is a stepping stone to using the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule to send humans to and from the station, as well as future destinations in low-Earth orbit.

For NASA, the mission represents the first test of its new stance as a customer for launch services to low-Earth orbit. No longer is it the organization sitting in the driver's seat from rocket design through launch to landing. Once the Falcon 9 leaves the pad, control of the mission shifts to SpaceX's command center at its Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters. Only when Dragon closes in on the space station will NASA have thumbs-up or thumbs-down say in the test flight's next steps.

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