* Company flew practice mission in May
* Second station freighter prepares for debut flight
* SpaceX launch slated for 8:35 p.m. EDT Sunday
By Irene Klotz
Cape Canaveral, Fla., Oct 5 (Reuters) - Space ExplorationTechnologies, the first private company to fly to theInternational Space Station, is poised to launch its initialcargo mission to the orbital outpost as part of a $1.6 billioncontract with NASA to deliver supplies.
Liftoff of the company's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsuleis scheduled for 8:35 p.m. EDT on Sunday (0035 GMT Monday) fromCape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
If successful, the company, founded and run by Internetentrepreneur Elon Musk, will restore a U.S. supply line to thestation that was cut off by the retirement of the space shuttleslast year.
Since then, NASA has been dependent on Russian, European andJapanese freighters to service the station, a permanentlystaffed research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km)above Earth.
In May the firm, also known as SpaceX, made a practice runto the $100 billion orbital outpost, a project of 15 countries,clearing the way for the first of 12 cargo runs.
SpaceX is one of two firms hired by NASA to deliver cargo tothe station.
Its other contractor, Orbital Sciences Corp. , onOct. 1 rolled out its first Antares rocket to a new launch padon Wallops Island, Virginia, for an engine test-firing slatedfor this month or early November.
The rocket is scheduled to make its debut flight before theend of the year.
Orbital also plans a practice run to the space station,similar to what SpaceX did when its Dragon ship docked at thestation. If all goes well, Orbital will be cleared to begin workon its $1.9-billion NASA contract to fly cargo to the station.
For Dragon's first supply run, NASA is sending about 1,000pounds (454 kg) of food, clothing, supplies and science gear tothe station.
Unlike previous station cargo ships, which were not reusableand burned up in the atmosphere during descent, SpaceX's capsulereturns to Earth.
As a result, it will be able to carry back experimentsamples and station hardware that is broken or no longer needed.
NASA contributed $396 million to SpaceX and up to $288million to Orbital to help the firms develop their cargo ships.The agency is running a related, $1.12 billion program withSpaceX, Boeing and privately owned Sierra Nevada Corp. todesign station crew transports.
"There's this burst of creativity going on in the privatesector," said former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, who joinedSpaceX in March 2011.
"It's analogous to the golden age of air travel, between thetwo world wars, where people were trying all different thingsbecause nobody knew back then what an airplane was supposed tolook like," he said at the American Institute of Aeronautics andAstronautics space conference last month.
NASA hopes to be able to buy rides for its astronauts oncommercial space taxis by 2017, breaking Russia's monopoly onstation crew transports.
The Dragon capsule was expected to reach the station onWednesday. It would then remain berthed at the outpost for about18 days and make a parachute descent into the Pacific Ocean onOct. 28.
(Edited by David Adams and Xavier Briand)
Keywords: SPACE SPACEX/