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Why historic SpaceX mission to space station will be so difficult

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Beyond the launch's import for SpaceX and NASA, however, lies its signal regarding the future of the United States as a truly spacefaring nation, some analysts suggest. It's a future in which access to space for research, commerce, or even relaxation opens to more than relative handful astronauts sporting space-agency logos on their jumpers.

“This is an important step, bordering on a great leap,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation in Washington, referring to Saturday's launch attempt during a prelaunch briefing this week. As a NASA astronaut, Mr. Lopez-Alegria flew on three space-shuttle missions and served as an expedition commander aboard the space station.

The mission is technically demanding – cramming into one orbital outing an agenda that the Gemini program in the 1960s took several missions to accomplish. Indeed, NASA and SpaceX agreed to combine the objectives of two demonstration flights into this one mission, based on the Falcon 9's past performance and an analysis of the company's readiness to attempt a twofer.

The challenge begins with the split-second timing required of the launch time. Launches to the space station are notorious for the small span of time – perhaps 10 minutes – a rocket has to lift off in order to rendezvous with the space station while burning as little fuel as possible during maneuvers required to catch up with the outpost.

On this mission, SpaceX has mere seconds to launch. Otherwise it must wait another three days for a second try.

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