For the first time, a private, commercial spacecraft will launch into Earth orbit and autonomously dock with the International Space Station. Lumbering governments beware: private industry is taking over your space turf.
SpaceX has been working on its Dragon space capsule for six or seven years now, and after a successful launch, orbital insertion, deorbit, and landing back in December, NASA has decided that Dragon is fit to meet up with the ISS. The mission will launch on November 30, and if all goes well, the ISS docking will take place nine days later. While the Dragon capsule is human rated (and was intended from the beginning to carry up to seven humans), this first ISS rendezvous is going to be unmanned, and Dragon will carry a cargo of, uh, cargo. Mostly Tang, I bet.
The vehicle that will propel Dragon into orbit is the SpaceX Falcon 9, making the entire mission a private undertaking. Rather than relying on a few big engines, the Falcon 9 uses (you guessed it) nine smaller ones all working together, and the system is expandable with up to twenty-seven engines (in the form of the Falcon 9 Heavy). In this configuration, the Falcon rocket can deliver a whopping 117,000 pounds to low Earth orbit, or send over 30,000 pounds all the way to Mars.
For the moment, though, SpaceX is focused on helping NASA out with its whole lack of a space shuttle situation by proving that a private company can safely, reliably, and cheaply (sort of) take over transport duties. And as far as sending up (and bringing down) people, NASA hopes that manned missions will be feasible by 2015 or so. Until then, everybody's just going to have to make due with the incredibly old but maddeningly reliable Soyuz.