If all goes according to plan, Dragon should stay attached to the football field-sized station until March 25, when the capsule returns to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, agency officials said.
NASA is funding these SpaceX missions in part to help replace the space agency's shuttle program, which NASA retired in July 2011. The agency also gave $1.9 billion to Virginia-based Orbital Science Corp. for eight cargo flights. That expenditure was part of the same program responsible for funding the SpaceX launch. Last week, Orbital Science Corp. successfully test-fired its Antares rocket, which the company will use in conjunction with its unmanned Cygnus capsule in transporting cargo to the space station.
Between the shuttle retirement and the launch of SpaceX's first cargo delivery flight in October 2012, NASA relied solely on spacecraft built by space agencies in Russia, Japan and Europe to send supplies to the station, but those vehicles aren't able to return cargo to Earth. Instead, the craft burn up in the planet's atmosphere.
Dragon, however, can bring cargo back to the ground to be studied or upgraded. This mission is slated to bring back about 2,300 lbs (1,043 kg) of space station material.
The 14.4-foot-tall (4.4 meters), 12-foot-wide (3.6 m) Dragon capsule is the first solar powered American spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station.
The space agency still relies on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to bring astronauts to the space station, but that could change eventually. NASA officials hope that a commercial firm, perhaps SpaceX or Orbital Sciences, will have the capability to send a manned mission to low-Earth orbit by 2017.
SpaceX's next launch to the space station is scheduled for fall of this year.
Although sweeping federal budget cuts, dubbed the sequester, are set to go into effect today, the cuts should not affect SpaceX's partnership with NASA, at least in the short term, Shotwell said, and the space station program should be similarly unaffected, according to Suffredini.
Watch NASA astronauts attach the SpaceX Dragon capsule to the International Space Station live beginning on Saturday (March 2) at 3:30 a.m. ET (830 GMT) here on SPACE.com.
Editor's Note: This story was updated after the spacecraft's launch to reflect an apparent anomaly after Dragon spacecraft separation.
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