NASA, SpaceX live-tweet first private trip to space station

SpaceX, one of the private space transportation companies that NASA awarded with a private contract to begin carrying cargo to and from the International Space Station now that the space shuttle program has been retired, successfully launched the unmanned Dragon from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on Tuesday.

With the hardest part of the mission — the attempt to dock with the space station — coming up on Friday, Twitter is the best way to keep up to date on what has so far been a successful mission.

Thursday’s objective was to test the control and communication capability of the craft with a flyby of the station, ensuring it can be maneuvered as close to the space station as necessary on Friday for the station’s robotic arm to grab it.

The craft carries about 1,200 pounds of non-critical supplies including food and clothing for the crew of the space station. It will return carrying used equipment.

A successful test mission would allow SpaceX to transport larger cargo loads later this year, and would also provide support for SpaceX’s goal to send manned shuttles into space by 2015. NASA has been more hesitant about this long-term goal, and former astronaut Neil Armstrong criticized the privatization of the space program at a Senate hearing earlier this month.

"If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is simply allowed to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered," he said, expressing doubt that companies like SpaceX could step up to the standards set by NASA.

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"I hope that the success of this mission — thus far at least, and hopeful it's entirely successful — will dispel some of the doubts that people have," Elon Musk, a founder of SpaceX as well as Internet company PayPal, told reporters after launch, according to Reuters. "In some cases, people have had legitimate concerns because there's no precedent for what we're doing here.”

President Obama called Musk on Wednesday to congratulate him on Tuesday’s successful launch. The White House is looking to encourage private innovation in the space industry and is eager to usher in a new era of space exploration.

“Partnering with U.S. companies such as SpaceX to provide cargo and eventually crew service to the International Space Station is a cornerstone of the President’s plan for maintaining America’s leadership in space,” said John P. Holdren, the president’s assistant on science and technology, in a statement. “This expanded role for the private sector will free up more of NASA’s resources to do what NASA does best — tackle the most demanding technological challenges in space, including those of human space flight beyond low Earth orbit. I could not be more proud of our NASA and SpaceX scientists and engineers, and I look forward to following this and many more missions like it."

The SpaceX craft is expected to return to earth after about two weeks on May 31.