By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - A private company will make a trial cargo run to the International Space Station in February, a key step in a new U.S. program to buy spaceflight services on a commercial basis, NASA said on Friday.
California-based Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, plans to launch a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo capsule from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on February 7.
The mission would mark the second flights of the Falcon 9 and Dragon, which debuted in December 2010.
"SpaceX has made incredible progress over the last several months preparing Dragon for its mission to the space station," NASA associate administrator William Gerstenmaier said in a statement.
"We look forward to a successful mission, which will open up a new era in commercial cargo delivery for this international orbiting laboratory."
Since the retirement of the space shuttles this summer, the United States is relying on partner countries like Russia to transport supplies and crew to the space station.
To encourage commercial cargo runs, NASA has hired SpaceX and a second company, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. to fly cargo to the space station, a $100 billion project of 16 countries, which orbits about 240 miles above Earth.
A successful test flight by SpaceX -- as well as a similar run by Orbital scheduled for next year -- would begin restoring U.S. access to the station, which is expected to remain operational until at least 2020.
The companies' contracts are worth $1.6 billion and $1.9 billion, respectively.
The space station serves as an orbiting laboratory for medical, fluid physics, materials science and other experiments. It also hosts astronomical platforms, including the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector.
In addition to commercial cargo transport services, NASA is working with four companies to develop space taxis to fly crew to and from the station. The firms are SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp., and Blue Origin, a start-up owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
A solicitation for the next phase of the program is expected to be released this winter.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Chris Wilson)